Today I did something I haven’t done for a year or more — I read the UU (Unitarian Universalist) World soon after it landed in our mailbox. I did not read it out of duty or professional commitment; for the first time in months, it beckoned my heart. Strange confession from someone officially categorized as a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, but an honest marker that perhaps my life has completed this latest circle at last.

Just over two years ago, as the sun marked its longest day in the northern hemisphere, I sat in front of an invited congregation and altered the very polity of my life. In short, I got married. Till that moment, polity changes were something I suggested, cajoled, imposed on others from an autonomous and somewhat superior detached position. From that moment on, polity changes rewrote my life so radically that for most of the time I wondered who I would be when the ride was over. for in taking the spouse my heart chose, I surrendered my life not only to her, but also to whatever her Huntington’s Disease would cast upon us together.

Marriage has been a wonderful polity advancement, except for this disease. She galloped up the aisle already in the grip of Stage Four, but with disciplined athleticism has pounded into every achievement physical therapy can offer. She doesn’t speak much these days, and not clearly when she does, but her mind and guts ring as strong as ever. Yesterday she reminded me that I had promised to take her to see the latest Star Trek movie in a theater. We spend lots of our time consuming news stories and listening to author talks and history lectures on C-Span, which ramps up my long ago international studies pursuits.

Pouring myself into her care, in order to continue enjoying her companionship, redirected the polity of my life into the community of people struggling with this and similar movement disorders/neurodegenerative diseases. For a long time, this diversion scared me. Could I retain my ties to UUism — especially without the means to attend Sunday worship (which I deeply, passionately miss)? If I spent so little time discussing UUism, imbibing its culture and habits, would it fall away from disuse?

Much to my amazement, UUism retained its ties to me. The Care Network checks on us regularly, and can be relied upon to keep her cheery and valued on the few occasions I tear myself away. Our contact visitor even came over and weeded one of our gardens one hot summer day, asking nothing in return! Meanwhile, a project I worked on years ago has become relevant again, and a small self-appointed subcommittee of the Women’s Alliance (my chosen small group ministry) has rallied to keep me either motivated or urged, while still respecting the challenges of the disease.

What completed that circle has been the addition of a marvelously self-reliant and highly-trained caregiver. My wife plans to stay at home for her entire journey with the disease, but having 34 hours a week of support and even replacement lets me get out of the same house. Mostly I just go into a separate part of it and read catalogs, watch Netflix documentaries and BBC murder mysteries. These I choose for their filming locations, and call them “scenery stories.” It turns out that lots of people do this, because you can go online and find out exactly where these places are, should you choose to visit. What I like is being able to visit them by going into another room, bringing my wife along, as it were, without leaving home.

But in this, our third year of marriage, when August brought its turn toward autumn and the back-to-school sales splashed over the screens, something familiar connected inside my circuits. Our Huntington’s Disease Support Association Walk takes place October 1, which means I have work to do in my new community. But there’s a Women’s Alliance meeting the first Wednesday of September, and this year, that feels like another place my new/old self belongs.

 

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Terrorism and Family Ties Call for New Forms of Policing

That two pairs of brothers succeeded in most recent western-based acts of terrorism would not have surprised Oscar Handlin. In The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, he observes that the nuclear family — which had not been preeminent in the previous world of interrelated but subtly separable networks of business, religion, clan, and recreation — emerges, in a new milieu where all these ties are severed, as the most durable social unit. This survival forces it to over-function. A wife might once have been able to chat with grandmothers, sisters, aunts, mother, mother-in-law, neighbors about domestic matters: separation from clan and country forces her to engage these topics with her husband. He, in turn, no longer has uncles, father, grandfathers, cousins, neighbors on whom he can rely, for conversation, for job referrals, for temporary asset transfers.

What he has left, in a patrilocal culture, is his brothers. Sisters leave home upon marriage, but brothers don’t move far from the nest. In the old countries, where people married without leaving the neighborhood or village, this didn’t impact the women as dramatically as it does in western countries. To a large extent, it is trust in brothers, uncles, and cousins (everyone rejects their parents in adolescence) that maintains what little social and economic durability a young man in a foreign country can use.

This explains how intelligence services missed the maturation of these murder plans. When terrorism becomes a family activity, the usual warning opportunities vanish. Most importantly, by eschewing a search for allies, family-based terrorism escapes the risk of failed or frightened allies who drop that dime. Secondly, they do not need a neutral semi-public meeting place, not even a separate safe house. Think of the 9/11 terror cells: a key requirement was the ability to avoid all broken windows policing. Think about why US intelligence quit watching Tamerlane Tsarnaev and French intelligence quit following the Quoereses: in both instances, as planning became more intensive, the terrorists left public view. Clearly they were focusing on family relationships, and sentimentalist assumptions in western culture concluded that they must have given up terrorist ideas and activities.

Eating home-cooked meals and having children has usually been associated with hope for personal longevity, not martyrdom. This tautology no longer applies to every “person of interest”. It would take personal information about each individual to understand why, but clearly, for quite a few, domestic bliss holds a poor candle compared to the bright lights of reconquering a despoiled homeland and regaining or improving the social standing one’s parents threw away by emigrating.

It could well be that while they live in western nations, these young men suffer intense humiliation with each instance of belittlement visited on the women and children they love. It could well be that some of these young men firmly believe that only terrorism will open the door to better social status for their sons and daughters, their faith, their language. If so, as with union militancy in our own US decades of economic turmoil, violence becomes not a rejection of family love, but an affirmation of it. I hate that thought, and do not advance it. But history cannot be denied, and this is what union terrorists once said.

I have often thought the the US has such a high divorce rate because of the way our voluntary emigrants turned their back on wider family ties. To this I now add a potential second form of blowback: socially marginalized families maintain enough trust to build complex plans for terrorism without dropping hints or leaving clues in the public square.

Deepening Into Caregiving: Summer

Over the last few weeks, Politywonk has gotten married, for the first time, at age sixty, to a wife who lives with Huntington’s Disease. Caregiving has become my life, in part because it lets me keep writing and reading and reveling in the arts. 

But for many years, as the sun crested through its Summer Solstice and began receding toward Autumn, I have fought off the urge to just be home. To rest and eat lightly, watch lots of baseball, and choose languid audiobook performances that fill the house with landscapes and cultures we’d be visiting if we could travel.

I fought off these impulses, as relics of earlier career paths, as the curse of being raised by educators. But no more. My wife and I have beautiful flowers and trees, not many, but enough, right here in our own yard, and this is their one brief window of opportunity. From now on, we’re reverting to the agricultural rhythm, even if we only support a few bees. 

And what does that mean we are moving to other months? Not writing, not even cooking — which simply moves to overnight hours, when cooler temperatures and quiet offices make it both more comfortable and more ecological. No, it’s the barrage of annual medical appointments. They wound up here because we’re here, and medical schedulers need to find people who don’t need the busy seasons of autumn and spring (in Vermont, winter is not a reliable scheduling option).

But from now on, we’re just saying no. I’m gonna quit waking up and gazing with sorrow at the roses as I leap in the car for some upkeep of something else. No, it’s time for the roses. It’s time for the lilies, the annuals, lifting bulbs, and slicing out bindweed. Cleaning out the garage, where wind-scattered leaves from last autumn are turning into compost and mold.

Look out, vacationers! We might not have money, we might have a dread disease, but that doesn’t mean we can’t vacation. Vacation is a state of mind, and my mind has just adopted it.

How Dandelions Changed My View of History

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When Unitarian Universalists sing our beloved hymn, “Spirit of Life,” one of the lines of its prayers is, “Roots, hold me close.”

And what we’re probably picturing is the shallow, wide-reaching structure known as “Grassroots.”Image  Note that the fibrous, or grass root, system spreads widely, equally, but also, fairly fairly close to the surfaces. Its new growth springs up pretty readily on a side-by-side basis. That explains why my recent lawn-recovery technique, of raking out all the old dead blades, leaving aerated soil bare to the sun, has resulted in fresh patches of cheery green.

Note, also, that this is completely different from a tap root. At first glance, of course, if you’re working at shallow depth, you can’t tell one from the other. But any lawn-keeper can tell you that pulling up a dandelion from just below the surface doesn’t work. Removing the branch roots is at best, temporary, and at worst, productive of new growth.

One of the first gardening jobs my father ever taught me was to get a pitchfork, or a taproot trowel, and dig them out, one by one, from way deep inside the earth.

Watching the news lately, as certain patterns of both oppression and response spring up from place to place all over the landscape, I got to looking past evil gardeners (the Koch brothers, the NRA) and asking if Aljazeera was showing me tap roots. They crawl along under ground, unseen, drinking from deep layers, and popping up where no one realized conditions might apply.

And the only conditions that apply is a soil, light, air, and water combination that suits this tap root.

What are the tap roots of our oppressions and responses?  My first thought was, “family systems.” Generation after generation doing what it learned as grandparents played with new babies.

And where did the grandparents learn it? Of that, I am not sure. But my guess is this: the original culture from which your grandparents issued. My fiancee and I get along so well in part because we both come from the Germans and Quakers of a certain part of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We don’t spend a lot of time explaining ourselves to each other, we just naturally tend to do the same thing. She loves the leaven of my English paternal line — but that, in itself, reflects a Germanic outgrowth.

So here’s my curiosity: where have German roots — the largest, and least discussed part of the US European mosaic — blossomed or poisoned (it depends on where you try to poke through) our regional patterns of behavior?

After (Another) Fall

Our routine of meds, meals, recreation, respite care — it’s all been on a roll for the past few weeks — and Saturday night had us all set to return to worship after the cold spells and schedule adjustments. (The Weather Channel still points us out as a cold spot, but after the part of the Polar Vortex that we got in December, it’s all good now!)

Anyway, I settled in at the computer with my tea, waiting for her to wake up.

Then came the THUNK from the bedroom: she had fallen.

I found her on the floor. Prone. Face down, fully elongated, breathing deeply. She did not respond to her name or to touch, but she was breathing. She’s usually a responsive sleeper, so this puzzled me.

So what did I do? I figured her REM sleep was unusually deep, that her Huntington’s Disease sleep chorea had propelled her over the side of the bed, and she would wake up when her dream finished.

Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, she wandered into the living room (yay! walking normally!) asking, “What happened?”

And I STILL didn’t get it!

When she was more wobbly, nauseous and confused after two more hours, I called the Replenishment Relative, who said I should take my beloved up to the hospital to be evaluated for concussion.

How did I not think of that?

It took another hour to obtain permission from my beloved to call an ambulance (note to social activists: mental health issues impair decision-making capacities), but when she stood up again and toppled like a cut tree, the fight was done.

And here’s the amazing party: After the EMT’s strapped her into the ambulance, they did a routine Carbon Monoxide test, and her levels were extraordinarily elevated! They came back in and checked the house (which was fine) and the alarms (which were serviced three weeks ago and worked perfectly).

The CT scan of her brain was negative for internal bleeding or concussion symptoms. A long day at the hospital brought down her Carbon Monoxide levels, and we slept in the living room, where she has a safe accommodation, until her niece and nephew can obtain and install the half-guardrail on our beloved heirloom family bed.

I write this 24 hours later. She’s got a few bruises, including one on her head, but she’s basically fine. Clear head, eating, resting as she does during each day. PBS Nature is focusing on wolves, and when I turned on one we saw earlier this week, she immediately complained that “we saw this one before.”

So now, the issue is me. The doctor said to watch her closely for two full days, and that’s not something I can delegate. But after missing Christmas, New Year’s, everything since Thanksgiving, what I’d really love is to believe that when those 48 hours are over, I am meeting someone special at a spa up in Stowe, to relax, to chat, to haunt the fitness center, the pools, and the massage tables.

But it’s more likely that I’ll be lucky if I can let myself take an hour or two around Burlington. However, I DO plan to spend those hours joining and using a gym.

Why Can’t My Mind Seize This Opportunity?

Here in Burlington, Vermont, it is cold, damn cold. It has been so for a couple of days and and gonna be so for quite some time. I have carefully looked ahead in the weather forecast to see when we’ll cross back up towards twenty (Fahrenheit) so I can get more groceries. That is thirty degrees and several days away — not counting wind chill.

Why should a caregiver care? Most days, I don’t go anywhere anyway; staying home with my sweetie and her disease keeps me busy and happy. But too often, since her greatest ambition revolves around listening to news shows (ranging from C-Span to MSNBC), my butt gravitates to my chair, so close to the sparkle of those blue eyes peaking out from under her fleece cover.

I’ve made a list of things to do, and most of them are really important. It feels like something inside is shifting in their direction. But mostly, I’m just playing on the computer, while MSNBC plays in the background. There’s some pride in having taken out the recycling this morning (most people didn’t) and brought in the bins this afternoon (apparently unique, even for those who got them out in the first place), but that’s a pathetic level of accomplishment.

Do other caregivers have this problem? I wish I knew…

Captivities at Sixty — and Releases

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel…”

So far this Advent I haven’t been called to join formal worship, but this song — and the prophecies of Isaiah — ring strong in my heart and soul. My life, as I turn sixty, has so many worldly captivities, but my soul finds freedom at this rickety old computer, where I connect with kindred spirits on Facebook and blog rolls, where I read newspaper articles, even where I yesterday had a pleasant day managing recent photos. No, my body may be trapped by my partner’s illness, but my soul is rooted, a firm, strong tree lifting wider and wider branches to greet the snow.

So why was this phrase coming to me? The captivities that bother me are those that bothered Isaiah: the poor, the disabled, the encumbered, all suffering rejection from those whose assets — financial, physical, social — could make them whole. No, those whom God has given the means to provide completion have instead diverted these gifts into a system for grotesque self-fattening. I get angrier and angrier about this; I hope Isaiah is right.

But at sixty, I’m well aware that I cannot save the world. All I can do is turn my waning talents to strengthen my own group of assets toward the stewardship for which God intended them. At sixty, I have put aside the lifelong demon of curiosity. My next transition will not be a new career, a new home, but, as this one has been, to deeper zones of soul, higher zones of relationship. 

The tree, in other words, has finally found its patch of ground. My crown will reach up to higher suns, but my roots with thirst or thrive with their current ground. That ground might not be physical, but rather, the family, the friends, even the congregations and cultures, that turn out to have been my succor these closing decades already.

So last year’s experimental abandonment of The New Yorker and The New York Times were failures; nothing replaced them, despite my good faith efforts to graft and fertilize. My research and writing will stick with polity, history, civil religion, and Unitarian Universalism. My centerpiece remains Christianity, although my branches have spread far past it now.

It is telling that when I sat down to plan the spiritual and social observances of this season, which for me now begins with Canadian Thanksgiving and reaches to Epiphany’s opened light, I could see themes for the first month — friendships — and the second one — closing the garden and changing over the fall clothes to deep winter warmers. And then I stopped. What comes next?

It was a Homer Simpson moment. Doh! 

That third month is December. Its focus is Advent.

And so, despite so many and eclectic faith sources, the trunk declares its species. 

The leaves trust in the warmth beyond the snow. We will all be free.