Mouse Thoughts

We have a mouse in our kitchen. Once I saw its shape skitter under a counter, and last week, when it thought we were all napping, I caught it on the stove top, next to the burner I use most often. In fact, that burner was my destination as I headed into the room.

And there, next to it, shivering in terror, was this very real, probably intelligent little creature. Its body bespoke fear with an openness most of us try to hide, most of the time. Countless children’s tales flashed into my head all at once, convincing me it knew that if it had followed its mother’s advice more carefully, no human would be staring at it right now.

The historian’s mind flipped on. For most of the world, for most of its life, living with mice and rats was the norm. You tried not to have them run over your face, not to stir their droppings into your food when you picked it up off the unprotected shelf. And of course, their presence meant fleas as well, the constant itching of vermin as well as refusal to bathe in the heatless, endless winters. No wonder people have a love for cats. No wonder it was God’s mercy to have invented them.

The auntie-mind kicked in. Nephew Number Two, for some reason, keeps pet mice. They have names, and at the end of their few months of life, get thrown away with some degree of commemoration. He’s an understated man, is Nephew Number Two, but over Christmas, he and his wife were hurrying home to feed and water one of these little creatures, despite having given it extra to tide it over their multi-day absence. He wouldn’t have doubted the emotions, the intelligence, of this little Beatrice Potter illustration in my kitchen.

But alas, our health needs must be met. So we ordered a trap — which we won’t have to empty, it will contain this little victim and his or her relatives — and when it comes, we’ll put it in the kitchen.

But we’ve agreed between us that as we put out this trap, we’ll borrow from the spirit of Native American hunters and eaters, to ask pardon and give thanks for all the animals we humans must kill to promote our own interests. Maybe someone has some to pass along, or else I’ll do the trust Google search and see what turns up. I might just improvise, drawing on what I saw that night, and what Lynne experienced as a vet tech, euthanizing ever so many innocent, beautiful animals.

We prefer to foster and save them, but sometimes it just isn’t possible. So take your time, eBay, about sending the trap. I haven’t seen the little mouse since, and it’s nice to know it’s sentence, for at least these last few days, has been suspended.

Finding One’s Place in the World

At First Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington, Vermont, we are wrestling through the interim interlude by which we will envision a new era of ministry and fill it with the right person or people.  A week ago yesterday, we assembled in the sanctuary after worship — without lunch — for a “listening and sharing” session which went for almost three hours with almost no one even leaving to use the restroom.  No lunch was served in advance, and yet no one left.  No Jesus appeared to multiply any loaves and fishes concealed in our garments and carryalls.  And yet, no one left until they felt everyone was satisfied.  And it was a pretty large turn-out, by either proportional or absolute measure.  Most pews were filled, so much so that some small groups had to relocate to The Parlors and Alcove.

We are invited to do it again this next Sunday, and this time, they promise “a light lunch.”  They know we will stay, and that we’ll do better work if we are not hungry.

Since I went through one of these a few years ago at King’s Chapel (my official home congregation), I begin by noting that this might be a more common part of interim work — especially, as in each of these cases, after a successful multi-decade ministry.   And in both cases, what stuck with me was the love of the society, leading people to show up and stay put despite personal discomforts.  In my own case, I took a Sunday off from my paid work in Vermont to drive down and sit through the three hour meeting, as hungry as anyone else — and then drive back.

And how did these societies articulate their motives for sitting through these meetings?  In Burlington, people spoke of the Society as a home and a family in their lives.  A place to be and grow themselves, and their children, with safety and support.  What they fear is losing the qualities that make this happen for them in this place.  And by place, they were articulate, they meant all of it — the people, the building, the worship, the music, the committees, the public witness, the professional ministries, the religious education, the administrative staff — the whole interwoven entity implied by the choice of the official name, “Society.”  And although it has a completely different theology, King’s Chapel, too, is officially a “Society,” and for the same reasons.

I contrast this with the descriptions of  disconnection in the lives of two young men who recently engaged in murders.  One brought weapons of mass destruction to a supermarket where he knew there would be still-standing civilian targets, gathered by his member of Congress for Constitutional purposes.  He might have been trying to achieve “suicide by cop,” but he certainly killed a number of innocent people whom society will miss.  And afterwards, numerous neighbors, classmates and professors noted that they expected him to explode like this, for he and his family kept to themselves, accepted no connections with anyone.

The second young shooter was written up in the New York Times I am just now reading, but dated January 2 of this new year.  His victim was not another person, but himself.  The military has not yet officially declared him a suicide, but the description of the scene and crime eliminate other conclusions.

David Senft had no such sense of place and family as we honored and gathered to protect in the sanctuaries of both these Unitarian Universalist societies.  His parents had a troubled divorce when he was five.  He lost the stepparent who was his most stable nurturer at the vulnerable moment of 18 or 19 years old — right when a person is challenged to “grow up and make their own way in the world,” rather than reach out for these stable networks.  Indeed, a UU of this age wouldn’t even know exactly whom to call for ministry in our faith.  Would it be the campus chaplain, the campus mental health team, the local congregation or the one from which they have “Come of Age” and moved on?  And if, as often happens, she or he is not in college, or not settled into it deeply enough to enter its caring networks, what then?

In any case, David Senft made the common choice of joining the military, an institution which is structured, fairly stable, and claims to have a health care system which includes mental health.  And the military, both as individuals and as a caring institution, tried to help him.  Friends even advised him not to reenlist when his first tour ended.  When he reenlisted, concerned officers and mental health officials took away his personal weapon — it was a roommate’s weapon that he used to kill himself (if that is what he did).

So why did he reenlist?  Having married a fellow soldier, and with a young son from an earlier marriage, why did he decide to put himself in a harm’s way he must have been aware of?

Where do young adults go, in this crazy world?  When post-secondary education isn’t the answer — as it wasn’t for several recent mass murderers — and the military isn’t safe — as is suggested, in this Times article, by the rising number of suicides during third and fourth deployments to active fronts — what do we offer?

A record number of young adults, not only here, but also in Western European countries, are moving back in with their parents.  They are marrying less and less, whether or not they fall in love or into bed.  In his excellent blog today, Gary Kowalski rightly points out that that anti-racism still has a significant economic underpinning.

But this young adult despair is not just for African Americans anymore, and Dr. King would be the last one to leave this unmentioned.  Unemployment goes way beyond what it does to the paycheck, and young adult unemployment has not seen such high levels in my long lifetime.  The experience of my nephews does not match mine at all, despite our common genes.  In my case, although I have sunk from what I once had, I still have an abundance of healthy networks in which I expect to survive as a spiritual and physical Self.  They have been cultivated over decades, but they began with other people’s stabilities.   Forerunners made them for me, in family, in church, in work and in education.  Yes, they had advantages from their race and ethnicity, and these advantages began by robbing others, through tools based on racism and ethnocentrism.  But my nephews have no such confidence, despite the university degrees we could give them, and even the professional training.  Law school, according to the New York Times’ current hot topic, is not what it used to be… and medical school, too, will have lowered economic expectations if we shift toward salaried, monitored, universal care.

So, white as we are, my siblings and I do not expect to pass anywhere near this much advantage to the children we have borne.  Recent social changes — rooted in economic dislocations over the last thirty years — have bled even our once-privileged societies dry.  If we are the last generation to benefit from the New Deal and Great Society, what will our young adult children have to do to keep themselves alive in any way?  And what will happen to their schoolmates, their religious peers, whose families started with, now have wound up, with fewer advantages than my family was able to grasp and hold onto for so long?

A lot of them will not see any answer.  They won’t just pick up guns.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) has got this right this time.  Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  And more of this killing is currently being done with shredded contracts than with guns.  Even if you add in knives, prescription drugs and exhaust fumes blown into the car cabin,these are not the problem.  They are the symptom of a generation being thrown into what was once a world — something we ominously now call “a planet”, and told to sink or swim, without the benefit of stable, nurturing societies by which to navigate, on which to float for rest, and by those means, eventually, return to solid ground.

Our whole country needs to gather in its various sanctuaries and name this problem out loud.  We who disdain the “bootstrap” theory must be first to meet with those who believe it, who used it — and ask them to enumerate the bootstraps that worked for them.  Then we must ask them to match up the bootstraps they see dangling toward our current young adults — not just the ones they know, but the ones who are already self-isolating or lost — and then see who is left over.  Citizens, after all, are citizens — and that’s not even counting the immigrants among us whose conduct has given them the same vested interests, and subjected their children to the same vulnerabilities. How do these folks plan to weave and extend new bootstraps for these young adults?

But we who live in privilege still — shrunk as it may be — are going to have to face what we truly have, and how it is distributed.  How did we achieve the societies in which we raised our children, and how do we pass that along?  What are the most immediate assets we can provide, not to build heaven on earth, but just to throw out a lifeline for other parents, who have no hope their children will grow up as healthy adults, must less members of a society which cares enough to keep them that way?

Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is getting lots of play this weekend, as well it should.  But his dream assumed a healthy middle class for African Americans to enter, provided they were able to do what it took to earn and hold a family-supporting job.  Where is that society now?  And how can we get it back, for all the young adults who wish that dream still applied to them?

UU Rosary Beads?

Epiphany is big for me this year: to see God, to hear God, to taste, touch and feel the sacred.  Not in daily life, mind you, and not inside myself.  On the contrary, my new life — settled into my second year of living with Lynne and providing for her needs as she lives with Huntington’s Disease — reverberates with a spiritual energy I haven’t known for decades.

But the new life somehow doesn’t resonate with my familiar faces of God.  How to pray?  How to hear?  I have been away from UU worship for several years now, more often than I’ve been in it, and the absence is confusing — because it doesn’t feel like an absence.   What’s up with that?

What feels holy to me right now – what makes me feel God’s presence inside me and my community — are human caring connections.  Neighbors help us rescue stray cats.  Family help us deal with our household necessities.  Individual UUs pitch in with household lifting tasks.

So Lynne and I have negotiated a new arrangement for giving as we have received.  Instead of putting our loose change into the several bowls, we are going to put up three boxes.  One will be for UNICEF — thanks to the Montpelier Unitarian Church RE Director, who can spare it to me.   UNICEF meets emergency needs for the world’s least fortunate.  The second will be for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which carefully chooses development projects to address injustice through practical uplift.  The third — which I have to make myself — will be for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, whose purpose hardly needs introduction.

This saving of coins for others is just the latest version of gleaning, the commandment from Leviticus that we leave the loose bits of fruit and grain lying in the field, for poor folks to collect as they come by.  “Crumbs from the rich man’s table table,” Jesus said derisively, but in our case, crumbs are pretty much what we live on as well.  It’s a different kind of sharing, because when I’m really really poor, I treasure my loose change to pay for groceries and such.   And I still save out my quarters for parking meters.  That will have to change, too: it shouldn’t be hard to ask for a roll at the bank (and put it in the “parking meter stash” I keep in the car), in order to save the loose stuff and increase the financial impact of each donation.

We will empty these and send in the proceeds on the Equinoxes and Solstices, as part of my growing return to neo-paganism.

So that’s how it works.  But the feeling is what I sense from the elders who return, with utter confidence, to childhood prayers or rituals in times of crisis.  Somehow, as different as everything is, these are still the same hands that put those coins in those boxes, poured them out, counted them, carefully sending in the check at an appointed holy moment.

Maybe these are my prayer beads, these little round metal tokens.  They only mean what we spend them on… so why not invest them, each time we spend them, as prayer rituals that start when we’re kids — Trick or Treat for UNICEF, followed by Guest at Your Table during Advent-Christmas-Epiphany — and grow as we grow.  Why should we grow OUT of childhood instructional activities — why not grow INTO them?