Tag Archives: William Stafford

The Long, Hard, Stupid Way

This week has been thick and dense, much like the cloud cover and fog that have engulfed the city. So my post is long. If you want to read it, you might want to line your snacks up ahead of time.

This being an odd-numbered month, Heretic School is on tap for early Tuesday mornings at Emmanuel Church. Heretic School makes the fabric of my week so much more vibrant and resilient. Sitting together with people I admire, puzzling our way through texts that baffle, annoy, or outright frighten us, is such a great and generous gift of time and spirit.

Later in the week I heard a great lecture by a designer named Frank Chimero, entitled “Do Things the Long, Hard, Stupid Way.” In the lecture, Chimero tells the story of David Chang, the head chef in the wildly popular New York City restaurant Momofuku. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Chang caught his sous chef cutting a corner in preparing a dish and told him:

Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.

Since the “long, hard, stupid way” pretty much describes the way I’ve done just about anything worthwhile in my life, this story appeals to me. It reminds me of the thing my older brother told me once, with which I ended my previous post here. It also reminds me of the time years ago that I heard T-Bone Burnett talk in an interview about how one of the things that appealed to him about Christianity was how difficult it is. These are my people, and they’re singing my song!

So all this was rolling around in my Joybrain this week when I engaged a Biblical literalist on Facebook over the Amendment One vote that’s coming up in North Carolina on Tuesday. A friend of mine had posted this great flow chart on her Facebook page:

One of her Facebook friends responded with the standard line that God made marriage for one man and one woman, “it was Adam and Eve not Steve & Tom or Mary & Joyce.” At first, I thought, no, I’m not getting into this. These types of arguments rarely go anywhere, and they often frustrate and demoralize me.

Without comment, I posted a link to a video that had interviews with a wide variety of North Carolina clergy saying what was wrong with Amendment One and why people should vote against it.

The man responded with more canned argument about how our country has gotten away “from knowing God and his word” and that we need to repent and come to Jesus or we’ll fall under the power of other countries. At that point, it was my bedtime, but I couldn’t resist responding with this before I went to bed:

I’m a Christian, lesbian, and married to my wife for the past 8 years here in Massachusetts. We have three daughters together. I read and study the Bible, go to church every Sunday, pray daily, and know that, like you, I am made in the image of God.

The work of Jesus Christ about freeing ALL God’s people from tyranny, oppression, and danger. Jesus had NOTHING to say about homosexuality, and very little to say about marriage. More than anything else, he talked about not being afraid and about the corrupting, oppressive power of wealth. If you actually read the legislation, Amendment One puts all kinds of North Carolina’s families and children at risk. Certainly not what Jesus would want for God’s people.

I would go so far as to say that Amendment One would make North Carolina look more like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than any state in this country, which, after all, was founded on liberty for all people. I don’t normally engage with people who claim to know what God thinks, and I may end up regretting this, but I couldn’t stay silent. Silence has never protected anyone.

When I got up the next morning, I resisted the temptation to see how the man responded. I wasn’t sure I was up to what I assumed would be a lot of vitriol. As PW and I drove to work together, I told her about the Facebook thread. She suggested that I was already in the conversation, and advised that I go ahead and read his response, but with as much compassion as possible. And that if I chose to respond to him, to do so from a place of compassion, not combativeness.

His response was to tell me that he is a retired soldier, working with other soldiers, and that he has been to Iraq and Afghanistan and clearly I know nothing about the Taliban, who will kill anyone who does not believe what they believe. His ending surprised me: “May God work in you his will and glory in Christ Jesus.” It struck me as open-handed, which I’m sure was partly due to my adopting PW’s suggested posture of compassion. So I responded:

Thank you for your service, and for your ongoing support for and work with soldiers. My comparison with the Taliban has to do with a religious minority attempting to impose its world view and its rigid perception of God’s law onto a population that does not share its religious views. That is what Amendment One is all about–a religious minority attempting to write into state law its particular religious views.

I encourage you, and anyone else reading this thread, to stop and consider what we know about the universe—it is rapidly expanding and only about 15% of the matter in it is known to humans. If the universe is the work of God, and I think it is, why on earth would anyone assume that God’s only communication with us is contained solely in The Bible? If God’s ever-expanding creation is made in God’s image, then perhaps God continues to speak to us, at all times, in all places, and in ways that we can barely comprehend.

Given what the scriptures tell us, over and over, about what God wants for God’s people, I think that it is safe to believe that where justice, mercy, and love are alive in the world, that is God speaking. Where hunger, oppression, tyranny, hatred, and division are alive, that is God weeping.

I pray that all people in all places may find ways, whatever their path, to expand the realm of justice, mercy, and love, and to shake off the chains of tyranny, oppression, hatred, and division.

As I reflected on it, I realized that the key for me in this exchange was to stay invested in simply standing and representing a different view–to represent possibility, and not get invested in winning the argument, or convincing the other person. Those results would be nice, but, to paraphrase William Stafford as I’ve done before, it’s the process that’s important.

The exchange was also an excellent test of my convictions. Do I really want the realm of justice, mercy, and love to be alive in the world? Yes, yes I do. How hard am I willing to work for it? As hard as I can. Some days there’s more can in me than others. And since it’s not work that can be done alone, that’s why it’s so important to draw strength from others. I draw my strength from people in and out of church, with people I know and with people I have never met, but am connected with by a web of Love.

I know as well as anyone that to take on a label is to risk being pigeonholed by other people’s assumptions. If I’m a lesbian, I probably hate men, or I couldn’t get one to like me, or I just haven’t met the right one. If I’m a Christian, I’m probably an irrational, science-denying person incapable of critical, analytical thought. I’ve heard all that and more.

But see, for me, being a Christian (and for that matter, being a lesbian!) has meant doing things the Long, Hard, Stupid way. It is to willingly inherit an ancient legacy of stories and customs that have been misused and badly interpreted for millennia. It is to share a path with people who, at one extreme, believe me to be unworthy and ungodly purely because of whom I love. If I am to live with any amount of integrity, then I believe it’s essential for me to stand and represent the possibilities inherent in the labels I take on.

Christianity is a peculiar path for me, made all the more peculiar by the fellow travelers. It’s a long, hard way, in which you’re guaranteed to encounter stupidity. So, really, it’s a lot like the rest of life, unless you have figured out some way to live in an echo chamber of genius. In which case, I’d suggest that you’re missing out on some interesting, provocative, and challenging scenery.

This week I found that engaging the more close-minded of my fellow Christian travelers with detachment and compassion can be excellent practice for clarifying my understanding of and my thoughts about this path. It’s also an intensive cardio workout for my compassion, which both feeds my desire to be on the path and makes me better at staying on it.

GForce, age 3, in the suds

While I was taking a shower on Friday morning, I noticed that the new bar of soap was particularly sudsy. It occurred to me that I’ve never heard a singular for the word “suds.” What would the point of a single “sud” be, anyway?

Then it occurred to me that Christianity is like suds, it is inherently and essentially communal. It’s not a path meant to be traveled alone. Which is why it’s difficult. Which is why it demands companionship. Which is why it’s difficult. Which is why it requires companionship. It’s circular like that. Not the least bit efficient.

So here’s to the Long, Hard, Stupid Way. Maybe I’ll see you somewhere on the path, and we can hoist some suds to the journey and our fellow travelers. The first round is on me.

For the anniversary of my life

When I was in college, I read and wrote a lot of poetry. It was both luxurious and exhausting, like mapping a geography that constantly changed. That was when I first encountered the work of W.S. Merwin. I don’t remember in what year of college I met Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” but it was love at first read. The first line of the poem is inscribed into my memory, where it hangs out in the same room with lots of other firsts (stitches, swimming ribbon, kiss, love, broken heart, broken bone, etc.)

For the Anniversary of My Death

By W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

There’s something about year’s end for me that highlights the collision between the inexorable march of the calendar and the concentric, infinite whorls of life giving way to death giving way to life. Maybe by the end of every year I just notice this collision more, as though the previous 11 months have worn away the insulation on my nerve endings. Whatever the reason, by November and December, I’m moved to tears more, I feel like I hear and feel everything more acutely, I notice more stuff that’s in my peripheral vision, and words, phrases, and melodies tumble around in my head like too much laundry crammed into a dryer. When I slow myself down to sort all this out, I feel mostly bewildered, as though I’m sifting through a great pile of mismatched socks.

So I’ve been quiet here for the past couple of months.

And it’s not like I suddenly feel I have something really profound to share today. I just need to be reconnected with this discipline, and with the small and mighty community of people who come here to share, to seek, to find, to laugh, to cry, to wonder, to ask, “Where in the world are we (or is she) going?” That is, after all, why I come here, too.

A little more than six weeks ago, I was in a spectacular—and still unbelievable—car accident. While I was sitting alone in my car, stopped at a light, a man half my age drove into the back of my car while he was travelling at least 45 mph, according to the police. There was no squealing of tires to warn me—he never even hit the brakes. For me there was just deafening noise and intense impact, as if a bomb had gone off in the trunk. When the dust cleared, I peered out my windshield to see a car lying on its side in front of me. It was the car that had just hit me.

I couldn’t process any of this at the time, and I still can’t. All I could manage to say when I stumbled out of my car in a fog of shock was, “What the…What just happened? What??” Wave after wave of onlookers, police, and EMTs, approached me to ask if I was hurt. “I…I don’t know. Um, I think I’m okay. I…What just happened? What the??” As it turned out, the only significant damage was to the cars involved, and the other driver’s insurance rates. I was extremely lucky to sustain merely an addled brain, a badly bruised knee, and a little whiplash.

I frequently find myself reflecting on my luck, particularly at the end of the year. This year, my reflections on my luck were accompanied by the relentlessly looping soundtrack of the car wreck, with a steady drumbeat of newsflashes that made my heart hurt:

  • A couple of weeks ago, I heard that a dear friend—a college classmate and a woman I have admired and adored for more than 30 years—has some kind of cancer that her oncologist isn’t even sure how to treat. She also recently lost her dad to leukemia.
  • On Christmas morning, as PW and I were walking into church a couple of hours before the service started, we encountered a woman standing outside Emmanuel looking at the various signs on the doors. “I’m looking for an Episcopal church,” she said. “I just found out that my husband of 34 years has been having an affair for the past three years, and I need to find a place to sit in church with my fine young son.” Sure enough, they showed up for the service and the son sat with his arm around his mother the entire time.
  • This past Friday, a long-time friend of my parents and college classmate of my mom’s died after a long ordeal with cancer. Barbara Higdon was classy, brave, brilliant, and one of those trail-blazing women on whose shoulders generations of other women stand, many of us without knowing it.

The day after I heard about my friend’s diagnosis, I was walking  through Chinatown and was frozen in place by this graffito:

There are many more heart-hurty news bits in the mix, but those three, plus the graffito, best capture the variety. As I was sitting in church on New Year’s Day, in the stunningly beautiful Lindsey Chapel, the low winter sun came streaming in the windows in such a startling way that many of the people in the congregation turned around and looked up. The room and the congregants were bathed in a brilliant, other-worldly light.

Meanwhile, Bishop J. Clark Grew (ret.) was preaching about the currency of hope, and how this year’s familiar Christmas narrative reminded him that the divine rarely breaks through in our lives in ways we expect. As if on cue, the words “for the anniversary of my life” floated across my mind’s eye in an unbroken line.

After my initial reaction (“What the heck? THAT’S not how Merwin’s poem goes!”), I felt like a dog resisting the pull of the leash. I wanted to investigate these words “for the anniversary of my life,” to spend a long time sniffing them, tumbling them around in my brain.

I don’t know if “for the anniversary of my life” and the graffito’s message “She knows she’ll never die!” were the divine breaking into my consciousness, but I’m open to the possibility. Maybe the openness to the possibility is the whole point. This morning I felt driven to pull one of my favorite books off the shelf: William Stafford’s “You Must Revise Your Life.” This slim little paperback is a combination magnifying glass and life raft when I encounter life’s mysteries. I mostly don’t want a decoder ring for life’s mysteries; I just want new ways to look at them without drowning.

The book is only 118 pages long, and in my copy I have folded over dozens of pages, underlined many passages, and bracketed entire paragraphs, usually putting stars next to the brackets. At the bottom of page 81, I have a couple of sentences bracketed, with a star, and above it I wrote, “This is it!”

“[T]he product is expendable, but the process is precious…The process is the process of living centrally and paying attention to your own life. Surely that’s worth doing. If you don’t, who will?”

In the sense that we all have an expiration date, the noun-ness of our lives is expendable. It’s the living itself — our verb-ness — that’s precious and unbounded by time: the ways we choose to live, whom and what we choose to notice, to share, to explore, to accompany, to hear, to carry with us. Sometimes we write, and sometimes we are surface on which others write. Barbara Higdon’s physical matter is dead, but the essence of her life cannot be extinguished; I’m still discovering ways in which she is written into me.

Like many people out there writing our lives from one day to the next, with and without words, I find myself beginning this year in wonder and mourning. I don’t know the ratio of one to the other, because, honestly, I feel filled with immeasurable amounts of both. Which brings me to another little poem, this one by a 12-year-old girl from New Zealand.

May your year ahead be so bold and brilliant. May your wonders be deep and your mournings be shared.

Dark, Dark night.
The trees. The river.
One more day;
For so slow goes the day.
Before the end
    the world goes round
        once more.
The world begins the day.
The night has gone.
The day for the end of the world
    once more begins.
Once more begins the sun
Slow, so slow.
Go on, world, live.
Begin, sweet sun.
Begin, sweet world.
The people live and die.
People die alive
    alive
        alive

By Lynette Joass
Age 12
New Zealand

From “Miracles: Poems by children of the English-speaking world,” collected by Richard Lewis.

Here’s a song for this post: Sweet Honey in the Rock singing “Breaths.”

Psalm/Psong for April 12 – “Rewrite” by Paul Simon

The age of media players and electronic readers has probably trashed the whole idea of Desert Island disks or books – those 10 (or however many) albums or things with pages that you’d take with you if you were going to be stuck on a Desert Island. Nowadays, you can pack so much media onto a music player or an electronic reader, why would you settle for only 10? But I like the idea of keeping such a list, even though some of the items on my lists change from moment to moment.

All that is a preamble to saying that this psong reminds me of one of my Desert Island Books: You Must Revise Your Life, by the late great poet William Stafford. I initially read this little gem because I had devoured his other book in that same “Poets on Poetry” series, Writing the Australian Crawl. Both these books are such great little primers for being alive, in addition to being made more alive by writing. Even if you aren’t a writer, you really ought to read both these books, if only to get William Stafford’s voice in your head.

Back to the music. I love this psong’s humorous take on the act of praying, and living, how the two are indistinguishable, even if you use a different word for what we churchy people call prayer. This entire album “So Beautiful So What”, which was released yesterday, makes theology so enjoyable.

I bet a whole lot more people would go to church if it took on the ambiguities and the ups and downs of life with the grace, insight, humor, melody, and rhythm that Paul Simon does on his new record. Especially the humor. I’m doing my part to bring humor back into church, but I sure could use some help mucking the stalls; the poop’s been piling up for millennia.

Who’s with me?

Lyrics to “Rewrite”:

I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite
Gonna turn it into cash

I’ve been working at the carwash
I consider it my day job
Cause it’s really not a pay job
But that’s where I am
Everybody says the old guy
working at the carwash
Hasn’t got a brain cell left since Vietnam

But I say help me, help me, help me, help me
Thank you!
I’d no idea that you were there
When I said help me, help me, help me, help me
Thank you, for listening to my prayer

I’m working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
Is just for working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna turn it into cash

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms

And I say help me, help me, help me, help me
Thank you!
I’d no idea
That you were there
When I said, help me, help me, help me, help me
Thank you, for listening to my prayer

© 2010 Words and Music by Paul Simon