Limits to Civility

Two posts in one day! But in these times it is necessary to clarify the boundary line of one’s tolerance for people with inhumane views. This lesson comes from my experience 1994-1996, as the UU parish minister in the midst of Dorchester, MA’s worst crime wave in ages. It was one of the worst in the nation, and it involved young people killing each other in gang wars.

The Boston Police responded with a community policing program which still gets mentioned as a high spot in policing history. Its foundation, I firmly believe, was the cops were required to live in the city’s narrow boundaries. No driving in from quiet suburbs for them. Shootings were on their streets, fights were on the playgrounds their children had to use also. Yes, that was a help.

Also, they. were good people. Mostly, anyway, often enough to make a difference in many cases. They also valued observations and analysis made by human beings, not computers.

Here’s what they came up with.

Gangs were found to consist of two layers. At the heart, and in the vanguard, stood people of genuine ill will. These leaders, selling drugs, wielding guns, hanging shoes, wearing bandanas, had no interest in community improvement alternatives or calls for civility. For them, arrest and jail was the answer. Cops drove around with warrants for these people at easy access.

The other layer consisted of folks who felt they had no alternatives for advancement in society, other than up the gang ladder. For these folks, the police urged practical educational support, jobs and job support, sports teams (remember midnight basketball?), and family support through community centers and adequate food and housing for those these young people were trying to support.

The current civility debate seems focused on the former group, fomenters not just of hate, but of cruelty and incapacity for those of whom they wish to make unwitting accomplices. I support this aspect of incivility. It is the other layer my previous post reaches out to.

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Deep Gym

Huntington’s Disease belongs to a group known as “neuro-degenerative” — meaning parts of the brain are dying — and it belongs, as well, to a group called “movement disorders.” Most people, if they know anything about HD at all, know its strange involuntary motions. Long before the chorea (known to earlier eras as St. Vitus’s Dance). The neuro-degenerative part begins long before that, and aggravates tendencies to anxiety and depression. As it progresses, it eats into executive and administrative functions — often leaving intellect fairly intact. With the decline of speech, locked-in syndrome is looking more and more like a possibility. But as my wife and I close in on her thirteenth year since diagnosis (February 2002), we’ve learned that this disease, like any other, has enemies in the cluster of habits and practices known as physical self-care, mental stimulation, and spiritual discipline.

In particular — now that there is a medication (from Europe, not Big Pharma) — that can help calm the chorea, we make daily, sometimes minute-by-minute use of our lifetimes of sports, yoga, strength-training, and just going out for walks. Deep Gym, let’s call it. Deep Gym started for me as a child, when my mom would get my father off to work, clean up the breakfast dishes, march into the living room and break out her Bonnie Pruden exercise records. There we would all be on the floor, looking at the fold-out book of stretches, sit-ups, push-ups and who knows what else. She took us to the Y for swimming lessons, and my dad drove us into the mountains on weekends for long hikes. In school I was a klutz at games and sports, but healthy activity played a happy part in our family culture. Through the years, I added some light yoga from an old hippie paperback, and kept up occasional visits to the local gyms or Y. Sometimes the repetition bores, because my muscles would prefer a bit more adventure. And then something hurts and I relish the muscular wisdom of Deep Gym.

For my wife, athletics centered her social and spatial life. Basketball, softball, boating, hammers and saws, long walks for watching birds. For a long time, as her disease started cutting into peak activities, she simply scaled down. Bicycles too tippy? Old Spokes Home will make a tricycle. Kayaking too risky? Easy enough to switch to a flat-bottomed row boat. Boating and rolling not possible? Time for a good long walk — or a short one, to the bluff above Lake Champlain, two blocks away. Like mine, her muscles love reaching into their Deep Gym however they can.

Last week, she started falling inexplicably. It turned out not to be Huntington’s Disease, but a urinary tract infection that made her dizzy. (Warning to Boomers — the burning sensation doesn’t happen as often, so the infection might not announce itself until you’re really sick). Once the antibiotics stabilized her chemistry, HD still complicates her recovery. Especially when tired, her muscles and limbs seem to have forgotten such simple tasks as rolling, bending, lifting. For the moment, she has to use a wheelchair, just to be safe in the house. And she’s staying int the house, until her strength and coordination get back to normal.

We’re on our own this weekend. She weighs 129, I weigh 124, so when she slides off a target platform — a seat or bed — I need her to participate in self-levitation. Yesterday, she couldn’t do it. We had to call the fire department for a lift. (This is expensive, and they already took us to the hospital twice last weekend.) Today, when she slid down, we calmed ourselves and I showed her that it would help me if she would do a “squat thrust.” I marveled to have remembered the term. And then I marveled even more, as she watched me demonstrate it once or twice, and then — she followed suit. Deep Gym to the rescue.

Tomorrow, we begin five days of intensive physical and occupational therapy, with who knows how much more to follow. Tiring, but exhilarating. Because I choose to be her main caregiver, it often reminds us of dancing.

Someday, you or someone you love, might find yourself/themselves facing one of the movement disorders — Parkinson’s,, MS, ALS, HD, etc. Perhaps you/they will have a neuro-degenerative. So let our experience encourage you. Keep working on that Deep Gym treasure chest — and someday, it will show up to work for you.

A Death in Summer

Last week a colleague I knew in seminary took her own life. She was younger than I, ministering steadily in stable congregations, but beyond that, I knew nothing of her life since graduation. Mostly, those who knew her are declining to speculate what might have happened, draping her death in the dignity it deserves.

My new wife and I are having a blissful first month of marriage (one month today), but my colleague’s death prompted me to reflect on what July has been at different stages of my life. As an elementary school child, I remember looking forward to summer vacation because school had not provided me with the hoped-for playmates. My family’s intellectual focus meant we did not — and do not — play well with others. We ask too many questions, most of them being, “Why?” But during long summers on our little foothill in Colorado we could indulge in all manner of history-based fantasies. We reenacted novels and movies, sang along with our mother at the rickety old basement piano. It is this epoch of life that my current newlywed July brings most to mind; it goes far to explain why Vermont felt so instantly like home.

Around ten years of age something inside flipped this formula of program-year agony, summer bliss. School got better that year, fourth grade, thanks to a caring teacher and a solid friend. When classes ended, my parents consented to my first self-initiated foray into the outside world: Vacation Bible School at a nearby Methodist church. Then we moved to a more congenial neighborhood and I began making friendships that sustained themselves twelve months a year.

After two years of this came magnet school. Once again, social isolation cloaked summers in pain and dread. Until I could drive (I hated bicycling, and it would not have supported my careful fashion statements anyway), the days dragged in hours of reading, listening to records. My father took us on long camping trips in places I treasure, but “roughing it” was never my style. Mostly I counted the days until I could reconnect with friends. It is instructive that on our camping trips,I would be looking as much at the other campers as at the scenery. What I remember most from those years is a night some strangers invited me to join them at their bonfire, and we laughed into the night.

The news of my colleague’s death, at the height of a beautiful summer, thrust me back into the longing, the dread, the agony of the decades when the waning of school and church opened into a dark season of loneliness. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I did my part in a strident group of UU Christian leaders who insisted on holding worship every Sunday in summer. We couched our commitment in theological terms, insisting that God does not take summers off. Many UUs heard it as liturgical arrogance, and on some occasions, I’m sure that’s what I intended. But the underlying purpose was pastoral. All summer long, there are people whose personal lives deplete rather than restore their hearts and souls. Economic and social dislocations often erupt in summer, as northern hemisphere families use the long, warm days to move house. Many of those moves are unhappy ones: divorces, job loss, house loss. These things might actually feel worse when flooded with sunshine, surrounded by flowers and green leaves.

In that long-ago Vacation Bible School, I learned to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a moment I needed a friend. For decades, that conviction was enough to console me in hours of loneliness, not because of the song, but because I could open one of my Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount and recover that blissful personal presence. The volunteer ladies who taught us, fed us, played piano to our scraggly singing. The minister whose own kids probably wished they were on a camping trip like the ones my father arranged. These are the sacrifices of faith that brought a real Jesus into my life.

Where were we, these emissaries of that Jesus and his community of healers, prophets, teachers, when our colleague needed someone for a summertime vacation? Where were we, these friends and classmates, when her soul hit its long, dark night on a bright summer day? My Facebook feed reminds me that UU clergy treasure our summers as “time away.” We need tp recharge our batteries and our families need our undivided attention. But with the oversupply of trained and credentialed clergy, with the difficulties of our downwardly mobile, planet-grieving social milieu, may her death call us outward, a second, deeper layer, ready to steady those whose pain increases when regular — rhythmic — life subsides.

(I notice I cannot bring myself yet to say her name; it is too painful to shift her identity away from the bright young woman I knew to the one she must have become. RIP.)

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. 

Unpacking the “Free Range” Label

Well, we’ll see how long things live in the blogosphere, because after only a few hours I regretted posting intemperate remarks about the congregation I currently belong to. They are good people, and our interim minister is fantastic. It pains me that they would be hurt by what I wrote there.

But I did have a couple of points, so I’m gonna follow the lead of Patrick Murfin and try to focus on a theme here. For my starting place, here’s the part of that post I want to lift up:

“Free-Range UUs” is an attractive phrase (it attracted me), but from a ministerial and denominational level, it needs a little unpacking.

Genuine free-rangers just don’t resonate to weekly, even twice monthly, attendance at congregational worship. I number among those who believe there are other forms and times of ministry and community that could bring more of these folks closer.  Up here in Vermont, as the nights get longer and colder, farmers are starting to talk about where their free-range chickens are going to spend the winter: barns, coops, etc. Out in the drought and heat, large animals have limited their wanderings to convenient reach of the watering and feeding supplements. Our denomination needs to think like these farmers, and get more living water and daily bread out to where the animals want to wander.

Not to be confused with free-rangers are the folks taking fallow time to renew themselves, after tons of time teaching RE, chairing some committee, serving on the board.  I believe that this, too, is a neglected ministerial field.

And then there’s the group in which I put myself yesterday, the “pissed off.” Sometimes we’re just disappointed, but we’re alienated. The denomination’s current approach to this group is to just wait for it to go away. No standardized exit interviews, no workshops like the “Coming Home” series run by Roman Catholics. Either they come back or they don’t.

I haven’t read the whole bylaw change on virtual congregations, but they seem like a good idea. As someone who has spent the last two years finding spiritual community primarily on Facebook, I can testify that in the end, a computer isn’t enough. You start to want to see people, to hear their voices. Facebook friends now figure in my travel plans, and I hope my hospitality for those who want to cool off with a summer week in northern Vermont.

Which means that, in the end, there’s no substitute for ministering to the various groups currently sheltering under the “Free Range Label.”  And happily, there’s a survey asking “Free Range UUs” to take a few minutes to describe ourselves to the denomination. I hope Free-Rangers will do this. Our denomination is taking some courageous steps forward, away from what now turns out to have been the mistaken effort to redefine ourselves as only “an association of congregations.”  Both Unitarians and Universalists achieved their greatest growth and prestige in an era that made provisions for individual as well as communal covenanters.

I took the survey, even though I don’t really qualify as free range, because I pledge to a congregation and worship there regularly.  After all, two out of three types of free-rangers — the fallow and the disappointed — are sitting in our pews right now, trying to strategize an exit that isn’t a total severance of ties.

God and Abe Lincoln Agree: Both Sides Need a Fundamental Challenge

There are so many ironies and illuminations from the weather-related contraction of the GOP Convention. Someone (sorry, I was channel-surfing) has already pointed out that the GOP budget substantially reduces both weather monitoring and disaster response. Apparently, God begs to differ. Let’s see how Romney and Ryan respond to an actual on-the-ground disaster. Let’s see if they tell their adherents along the Gulf Coast to dig themselves out with the family backhoes.

But the Left isn’t doing much better. On Sunday I heard an inspiring service about the UUA’s recent “Justice GA” in Phoenix. Certainly the treatment of these detainees — and the unfairness of the trumped up charges against so many of them — tears at my heart and arouses my wrath. But at no point did anyone mention that Phoenix has one of the top foreclosure rates in the nation. The statistic about Mexican economic disruption due to NAFTA had no parallel about what the same legislation did to jobs in the US.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln looked over a nation damaged by slavery and war, now completely without any process for assisting millions of freed people– and said to all sides,

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Whatever one thinks about Sheriff Arpeio’s work, there are reasons he enjoys popular support. I would have thought that GA a little more just if there had been a little more charity toward the folks of Phoenix, at least enough to ask about their lives as well.