Chalice Flames and Bonfires

Chalice Flame and Bonfires

One of my fondest memories of growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church involves lighting the chalice as a part of our youth group and youth conference gatherings.

But we didn’t just light the chalice. We lit.The.Chalice.

We would gather together burnt, used leftover matches and pile them carefully into the center of the candle to create a magnificent, brilliant light. While we discussed the topic of the day, one or two of us would tend to our chalice flame, keeping it contained yet bright as possible. When we ran out of used-up match fuel for our fire, we would find a use for our broken crayon stubs and melt them in the flame, letting the colorful wax drip down the side of the candle. We thought it was more pretty this way.

Over time we learned that the bigger the flame, the quicker the candle would burn. Our beautiful fire would suffocate when the pool of wax grew too deep or when the wick simply met it’s end. We weren’t too concerned then with making the candle last through our whole gathering, though. This was more about experimentation, pushing our limits (and, as it turns out, the limits of our advisors), and the instant gratification of making that chalice REALLY shine.

Occasionally, but not often, this ritual might have gotten a little out hand; an especially overzealous youth might add a few scraps of paper in an attempt to add a little more height to our fire and discover that the now bonfire was too hard to control, or we would create a waxy mess trying to clean out the candle. Those were the times when we found we had pushed our limits a little too far and our advisors would step in to dole out the logical consequences, and sometimes we could expect to lose our fire privileges for a while.

But that seemed to be part of the role of our advisors once we reached high school- to watch us tend to our own flame (hopefully not in panic-stricken horror) and step in when it became too much for us to handle on our own. Since then, I have learned that the line between a manageable brilliant light and an out-of-control blaze is very thin, and it takes a unique individual to help youth walk that line.

Sometimes I wish I still had an advisor to help me find that line in my day-to-day life. I might wake up in the morning, feeling calm, peaceful, yet determined and focused. But I might find that by dinnertime, after encountering a day full of frustrating news– stories of children taught to recite hate, thoughtless violence, and fear-mongering politics– I have crossed the line and transformed myself into a fuming, sarcastic, out-of-control blaze.

When I have crossed that line, I respond to antagonistic articles, Facebook posts, and conversations with not an ounce of understanding; I find myself seeking out news stories filled with mudslinging and hate, just to keep that fire fueled. Then I spend hours reading the comments and adding pointless lectures that won’t be read by anyone other than the people who were trying to create a bonfire in the first place.

And I know that I am not the only one– I think that UUs in general can be pretty susceptible to crossing that line. We are a passionate people and we care a whole awful lot. But sometimes our flammability lands us exactly where we don’t want to be and we react in exactly the wrong way. We turn into blazing, out of control bonfires.

We need our congregations and fellow congregants to be our advisors; to help us discover that line and to help us sustain our calm, brilliant lights. We need to help each other remember to respond in love, and not in-kind, when someone tries to fan the flame. Most importantly, we need to hold each other accountable so that we are compelled to react responsibly, especially when the temptation not to is great.

 

Arguing With Pundits

One of my favorite pastimes is to yell at my television and radio. Of course, the TV and radio aren’t really the subjects of my frustration; my issue generally lies with the personalities who use these poor, defenseless inanimate objects to deliver their misguided messages to the public.

For the most part, this tradition has always been quite an excellent arrangement for me; I get to sit on the couch in my pajamas, remote in hand, devouring the junk food of my choice, all while energetically poking holes in said cable news personality’s horrible excuse for an argument.

Surprisingly, this whole ritual is never as satisfying as one would think (junk food aside, of course). You would think that winning an argument completely unchallenged would be a huge ego boost, and since this generally all takes place when there no one else in the room to do anything else but roll their eyes at me (enter my spouse), I always win. But somehow, I still tend to leave the argument even more enraged than I was before; frustrated that I really haven’t done anything to change the fact that there is someone out there who holds a worldview that is, in my opinion, illogical, baseless, and probably even destructive. And, astonishingly, my arguments, no matter how loudly delivered, never seem to reach the ears of the pundit who so unapologetically espouses his or her views.

I have always passionately argued that this practice helps me better understand different points of view so that I can defend against them in an “actual” debate. I have even gone so far as to say that my Unitarian Universalist Principles demand that I occasionally immerse myself in alternative opinions so that I may challenge my own beliefs and explore other truths. Also, I figure that if I expose myself to some of these sometimes shocking ideas then when I hear them repeated by someone who is, I don’t know, cutting my hair, I will be able to keep myself from saying something I might later regret every time I look in the mirror.

On the other hand, there is a distinct possibility that this whole custom might really be contributing to the problem. If I tune in once a week to a cable news channel, what kind of money am I responsible for feeding into the whole operation? Am I just egging on these people? Perhaps my energy would be better spent writing letters and having an actual conversation with somebody.

So, with our cable service cancelled and the local talk radio channel erased from my presets, I have decided that it is time to have real conversations with people while engaging in a new spiritual practice: listening. Really listening.

I have discovered that the most disastrous result of my cable news and talk radio habit isn’t that I am giving the networks money. The worst part is that that every time I surround myself with the kind of hyperbolic rhetoric that comes from someone who can say whatever they want from the safety of a studio surrounded only by people who are making money from his or her wild assertions, then I forget that none of it is real. It only becomes real when we all start emulating the tactics of these pundits and stop having conversations outside of the safety of our living room couches.

Our pundit culture has completely changed the way we think about politics and debate. It taught us to view debate not as a way to expand our minds and understandings, but instead as a contest to be won; and what could be more interesting than to watch in a time of reality TV than two people engaged in duel? The winner has successfully and stubbornly stood her ground and the loser walks away with his tail between his legs, dragging his credibility behind him.

In the pundit world, ratings have replaced enlightenment as the ultimate coveted prize, and there is no line networks aren’t willing to cross to win them. Cable television and talk radio have become a modern-day Roman Colosseum, and our politicians and pundits are gladiators, pitting ideas against one another and hanging on to ill-begotten ideas as if their lives depended on it. Thanks to pundits, we have all adopted the opinion that to change your position on an issue “wishy-washy”, and that as long as you never show a single sign of humility or an ability to expand your mind, you will never have to answer to the person yelling into her TV screen a thousand miles away.

It is so easy to forget that opinions are much more likely to change when two people are in a position to actually listen to one another. Not just because they happen to be physically in the same location, but because they really want to hear what the other person has to say and (gasp!) are even amenable to learning something that they didn’t already know. We need these conversations to get back in touch with our humility and remember that we do not die when we change our opinions. Sometimes we actually grow.

So we, on both side of the aisle, can continue down the path of the pundits; we can continue to engage in destructive debates that focus only on destroying the character of another who disagrees with us. Or we can choose the higher road. This is a path that requires us to leave our couches and our studios and to listen in love every time; no matter how hard it may be.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Common Language

MultitaskingI realized today that I talk about my kids incessantly. I have become one of “those parents” who can’t help but insert a funny anecdote about my kids and their bowel movements to help illustrate a point– any point– even if the conversation at hand has NOTHING to do with children OR poop.

And yes, it did take me 5 minutes to remember the word “anecdote,” because my brain is only 25% focused on what I am writing at this moment. The other 50% is paying attention to the toddler and preschooler fighting over who is going to get to sit on my lap right now. And before you start wondering about the missing 25% of my brain, it has long ago turned into mush and has a voice that sounds like Elmo. I am not making that up.

But as I look back over my sadly out-of-date blog, and attempt to type with one hand while my toddler has staged a sit-down strike on my right arm, I realize that the reason that I write so much about parenthood is because… well… it is sitting on my right arm. And it’s starting to smell.

I have been lucky enough in life that I have had few challenges as profound as parenting. But this challenge, or series of never-ending challenges, never has and never will leave the forefront of my brain. It occupies my existence 24/7/365. So I guess that it is probably a good and necessary life skill to be able to find big life-lessons in the seemingly small, gross, and weird that comes along with kids. Think of it as multi-tasking.

Now, if childless me from the past had accidentally stumbled upon this exact blog entry (because, let’s face it, childless me would have never read a blog talking about kids, like, on purpose) I would have told me to stop complaining.

Well, childless me, let me let you in on a little secret: I am not complaining. I am merely speaking a different language– a not-so-secret tongue shared between caregivers of children the world over. You might witness evidence of this language in supermarkets; that knowing look shared between parents when a tired, hungry child has a complete and utter meltdown in the bread aisle. It is a look that says, “Yeah. I know. I’ve been there too. But I am SO glad it’s not me this time.” This look, childless me, is the exact opposite of the look that you presently give to parents with cranky children. The “you are the most horrible parent in the world, and I know this because I have taken care of a kid for a couple of hours before” look. Stop this look. It will come back to haunt you, I promise.

Spoken correctly, this “caregiver of children” language is spoken with great love, understanding, and support. This language can transport you to a world where it might SOUND like you are complaining to a friend (or complete stranger) about changing crib sheets three times in one night after your toddler discovers how to undress himself for the first time. But, really, you are bragging about how awesomely brilliant your kid is for performing this Houdini-esque act, and paying tribute to that adorable, proud smile that made your otherwise miserable day. (Besides, you took some sweet pictures that you are going to show your kid’s future friends and partners. After all, you did change the sheets three times.)

The best part of this language is talking to other caregivers knowing that their lives have been forever changed as profoundly as yours has; that they, too, have had the unbelievable opportunity to humbly rediscover the world all over again through the eyes of a child. Stories shared have the power to help bring back beautiful memories, they can open your eyes when perspective has been lost, and can help a parent come to terms with the limits of what he or she can realistically offer their child.

Somehow being around and nurturing children, and being around others who share these experiences, has taught me more about this world, myself, and even my own childhood than I could have ever learned any other way. Shared experience, I think, can be one of the most powerful tools of understanding and support. Sometimes we just need a little anecdote about poop to break the ice.

And now that my hand is falling asleep from the toddler that has been happily perched on my arm, I am wondering if perhaps there is a lesson in this for me; a subtle reminder that I also need to care for myself so that I may be a fully-functioning parent. Or maybe my son is just telling me that he needs a new diaper. Multi-tasking.

On Killing Evil

on killing evil

I cried on the day that Saddam Hussein was executed. And, yes, they were tears of sadness. Not because I thought that Hussein was a great, upstanding guy by any stretch of the imagination; he was undoubtedly responsible for the death and suffering of many, many people.

I was upset because his hanging was celebrated in the same manner as we behave when our favorite team wins the Superbowl.

When I see a culture that is not only indifferent about the loss of life, but actually feels pleasure and delight when another being is killed, my heart sinks.

I wonder how I am to teach my children to value peace and non-violence when they are surrounded by the mixed message of “killing is wrong… unless ‘we’ have decided ‘they’ are evil… and then we have a huge party to celebrate your killing.”

The same pit that I had in my stomach in December of 2006 was there again this morning as I read a text from my husband that said, “Turn on the news. Bin Laden is dead.”

As I made my way to the TV, I wondered what the attitude of the reports would be. Perhaps the journalists would be solemn and contemplative; maybe our media would be raising important questions like, “what does Bin Laden’s death mean for us and the rest of the world? His family? Those who lost loved ones on 9/11? Those who lost loved ones fighting the war in Afghanistan?”

Or would the reports be a cheerful? After all, Bin Laden had taken responsibility for killing thousands of American men, women and children on 9/11. I would understand if there was a cheerful undertone.

But the reaction I saw brought me to my knees.

A Party in front of the White House. Seriously?

Relief? Yes.

Contemplation? Yes.

Remembrance of those who have lost their lives because of and in pursuit of this man? Absolutely!

PARTY????? NO!

Why not a candle light vigil? Why not have a discussion on how further loss of life could be avoided without having to murder another human? Heck, why not even have a conversation about why so many of us seem to feel this release of emotion; so much so that we are chanting “USA! USA!” in front of the White House in the middle of the night?

Our media (mind you, the very SAME media that has reported with condemnation in their voices when attacks on America were celebrated in the streets of other “radical” countries) is highlighting these jubilant celebrations and even reporting them with elation. Because the person WE killed was EVIL. So OUR celebrations are clearly justified.

How is it that we live in a world where a death, ANY DEATH, is met with anything less than a heavy heart and a celebration of life? Bin Laden’s death should lead us into a period of meditation, prayer, and wondering. Bin Laden’s death could even lead us to celebrate the lives of those who choose every day NOT to kill in the name of a bastardized faith and those who have made many sacrifices for the greater good.

To me, justice is when the people who promote love and peace dominate the news; celebrating the good decries the destructive ambitions of those who choose to live in a world where “might makes right” and where retribution is a means to that end.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. All of us.

Today instead of celebrating a killing, I will instead light a candle for life and love.

For the lives of all are worthy, and a day when a life is taken in the name of protecting the greater good is truly a sad day.

Stop and Smell the Roses

Stopping to smell the roses

It is funny how children can speed up and slow down your life all at the same time.

There are days that I scarcely remember; a blur of tasks: Get the kids up and clothed, fed and cleaned, out the door and in the car, back home, settled down and snuggled, read to and asleep. Before you know it, you are passed out on the couch (nursing that foot you injured stepping on those stinking toys) wondering where the heck your day went.

And then there are the days when you are forced to slow it down; your daily flight into “to-do list land” grounded, plans derailed, and to make it worse, there is usually puke involved. Or, perhaps, I should speak for myself.

Oddly enough it is on these days, when my time is spent sitting on the couch, snuggling with my sick kid, that I wonder why it is that I am so inclined to wait until I have endured a toy-inflicted injury to spend some time crashed on my couch. It is nice when there is a chance to slow it down… just for the sake of slowing it down. No puke involved.

I think that my daughter has made it her life’s mission to remind us to take it down a notch; this is a child who, from the time she was born, has always moved at her own pace. Sometimes to our greatest frustration. Shortly after she started to walk, we discovered that the days of moving our bodies from point A to point B in a timely fashion was a thing of the past. We no longer walk somewhere; we go on adventures.

I am convinced that if you were to research the origins of the phrase “stop and smell the roses,” that you would undoubtedly find a picture of my daughter with this caption underneath: “Flowers, bugs, small creatures, leaves, trees, and pine-cones be warned: if you see this child, you WILL be smelled, talked to, SUNG to, touched, picked up, hugged and collected. And parents, you WILL be late. You just WILL.  Go with it. *See related phrase: ‘Moving at the speed of Alex.'”

Even though there are times when I wish she would get in the car so we can JUST LEAVE ALREADY, in my heart of hearts I adore this about my daughter. Time and to-do list be damned, there is nothing more beautiful than watching the awe and wonder in the eyes of a child who is experiencing the magnificence of our earth with her whole self. I have truly never met a single soul who so naturally live and breathes her connectedness to all of existence.

She takes the time to notice what everyone in the room is wearing, and wonders why. She feels the wind on her face and wants to know where it came from. She remembers the exact rock to look under to check up on her favorite hill of ants, asks them how they are doing and what it is, exactly, they eat.

I would be heartbroken if this child, this insipiring being full of love, imagination and compassion, no longer found meaning in the beauty and wonder of all that surrounds her because I taught her that meaning can only be found in crossing stuff off a list and in racing the clock. She makes me wonder how much of my world I am missing out on while I am counting down the seconds until I HAVE to be out the door or when I am hyper-focused on reaching my destination.

What would happen if the rest of the world took a little time to “move at the speed of Alex”? Perhaps my daughter could teach us all a thing or two about embracing the journey and soaking in the beauty that surrounds us instead of anticipating the destination. I am finding that the roses along the way have quite a bit to teach me… almost as much as the three-year old by my side.