It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

Thank You, Right Wing Conspiracy

Good morning, lovers of the planet and democracy (yes, we’ve been watching Thom Hartmann). To listen to Democrat officialdom and their media mouthpieces, you would think our nation faces the biggest crisis since the Civil War whose end we will commemorate next month.

Yeah, you would think that.

But let’s think, instead, like Abraham Lincoln. Let’s think, instead, like Dr. Martin Luther King. Because what the Right Wing Conspiracy — and yes, there clearly IS such a thing — has given us planet huggers all the tools we need to shut down THEIR favorite project, the Trans-Pacific Pipeline (TPP). Here we have a secretly negotiated international pact to silence local initiatives against despoliation of basic labor and ecological rights. Here we have a legally enforceable regime which makes it illegal for local government to function in support of its human citizens whenever any corporate “person”‘ — anywhere in the world — claims that local measure violates the corporation fundamental right to maximize profit.

Remember John Adams, and the long-ago “Alien and Sedition Act”? It’s back, and it’s bigger than ever.

But the trade-deal conveyor belt that is today’s federal government has learned it faces rising opposition to such deals. Hence the new device called “Fast Track,” which means the Congress only gets to vote a total bill up or down. It cannot revise, advise, or devise any alterations. Technically, this is the same requirement for ratifying  a treaty, but because a treaty requires a 2/3 majority for approval, negotiators work with a constant calculation of how to reach such a high number. Fast track happens before you know it, and calls only for simple majorities.

Both parties have sought fast track for some of their deals and opposed fast track for deals negotiated by their opponents. Meanwhile, the international left-right fringe objects to the entire regime of “trust me-hate them” secrecy and obfuscation. Unfortunately for us localists, we cannot see past the tear gas of social issues that the money lobby employs to keep us suspicious of each other instead of against them.

I recently had occasion to look at some newspapers from 1859 and 1860, prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Both North and South were already mobilizing troops and issuing statements about top priorities. Lincoln’s top priority was different: he intended to conduct his duties in such a way that the Confederacy would fire the first shot. This would allow him rally the North, but it would also prevent the South from claiming they had been invaded. When Sherman marched through Georgia, when Joshua Chamberlain fought through Virginia, the local population was, as the saying goes, “hoisted by their own petard.”

It is not my intention  that we abandon the injustices perpetrated as racial, gender, and generational bullying Lincoln did not intend to ignore the provocations from the South. But here is a chance to do what the Republicans say they want to do — enforce sound principles of governance, as they have articulated these principles themselves Democratic officialdom protests that these are tools they themselves need when they hold power. But the Dems who espouse these tools only want for themselves a lessened — moderated — version of the same privilege enjoyed by the greedsters. James Carville is wrong and Elizabeth Warren — and the Tea Party –Bill’s $25,000 cigars do tie directly to Hillary’s secret emails. The average American knows why Hillary is giving expensive speeches instead of eating rubber chicken and shaking hands with folks who made a real financial sacrifice to attend her event — not the price of a book, but wages foregone, babysitter paid extra for a full day.

Not for a moment do I take back my support for just jurisprudence and an end to bullying by frightened former elites. But in a tough fight, you take allies as they present themselves. The last month it has been the GOP right wing sharpening blades that we planet huggers and justice-seekers can now use to kill the TPP.

Scarier Than Ebola, Worse than Guns

During the couple of weeks that my wife’s body was building up bacteria from a urinary tract infection, we almost had to turn off our regular news shows because all they could talk about was THE EBOLA THREAT.

What was THE EBOLA THREAT? As I’ve written before, it had nothing whatsoever to do with our personal prospects for dying. The only people who contracted it in this country were health care workers who had the misfortune to fall victim to some small flaw in their Personal Protective Environment (PPEs– the space suits) and thereby come into brief contact with the virus.

But what about the one person who did die of ebola in this country? Thomas Eric Duncan came here from an affected nation to fulfill a long-held dream of marriage and family reunification. When his symptoms appeared, he did what he was supposed to do: isolated himself from his family, and then, as his fever rose, went to the hospital, and told them he had just come from Liberia. And what did they do? They gave him some antibiotics and sent him home, with a fever of 103 degrees.

This kept coming back to me as my wife and I struggled home from our first emergency department visit two weekends ago. She, too, had a fever — very rare for her — and she, too, was given antibiotics and sent home. They had watched her for hours for concussion, but she refuted every possible symptom, every hour on the hour. She flexed her feet, pushed back their palms. Most humorously, although she could not correctly tell them what year it was, she could tell them whose names she had checked on her absentee ballot earlier that week. Perhaps the medical staff do not believe Progressive Democrats need to be able to walk, because when they threw us out at 3 a.m., exhausted and frightened, my wife declined to put even one foot on the floor. What was the person thinking who wheeled her out to the car and pretty much lifted her in?

And a few hours later, naturally, she fell again. Well, even if you’re not dizzy from an advanced infection, if you have Huntington’s Disease, falling is something you can plan on. This weekend was different primarily because she could not get herself back up. So we had to call the ambulance, for a second time in 24 hours.

When we arrived, the nurses and doctors greeted us without surprise. They confused us by asking enthusiastically if we had arrived in response to the neurosurgeon’s phone call. What phone call? Come to find out, that when the morning staff came in, they reviewed her brain scans and discovered a pinpoint brain bleed. As we arrived, they were preparing a room to operate on the same brain that a few hours ago someone had ferried back to our 1998 Corolla.

So what really killed Thomas Eric Duncan, depriving his fiancee and their son of the family life of which they long had dreamed? Was it really ebola? Or did he, as my own wife almost did, succumb to hospital error?

This is when it’s great to live in a small place like Burlington, Vermont. The doctors have time to back each other up and catch mistakes. The nurses — like the one who was the first to detect the infection, while doing the unglamorous task of emptying a bedpan — have our doctors’ full respect. Now that we’re home, the visiting nurse evaluator, even the state benefits adjuster, are all familiar to us and with us. All of them wonder why she was dismissed with only one live-in caregiver when the instructions clearly said she required two person transfers. But we’re managing. We had a few scary hours, but the networks overlap and all is well.

This is rare. For too many Americans, there is no safety net at all. Crappy insurance, or none at all, keeps people from seeking medical care until their diagnosis is acute. Probably one thing has led to another, as in our case, so medical teams might catch two tricky things and still miss that third one.

According to the most recent statistics available, as many as 400,000 Americans die each year of hospital errors — both omission and commission, as we say in the religion business. 17,227 die of falls, 129,476 of cardiovascular disease, 36,000 of the flu and its complications. My wife in that Sunday dawn two weeks ago dodged a passel of bullets that drop all too many Americans (not to mention our guests) out of what should be the normal courses of happy lives.

As things calm down here at home, I finally got an hour to sit down and clean out my old phone messages. There, indeed, was the one from the neurosurgeon. A doctor who had the time and institutional support — the political climate — to start his morning by checking whether the overnight crew had missed anything important. Neurosurgeons aren’t cheap. But to everyone who loses a loved one to hospital error — to the grieving family of Thomas Eric Duncan — doctor money is a very small price to pay.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Pain Amongst Vermont’s Italian Americans

The weekend had some medical challenges from my wife’s Hungtinton’s Disease, but we did make note of our support for the cities who now use the second Monday in October to honor Indigenous Peoples. We don’t want to slight Italian Americans, and we especially note that here in Burlington,  Vermont, they were the main victims of property theft for “urban development” in the 1950s and 1960s. So our Italian Heritage Society up here has reason to be angry about losing yet another beloved occasion and asset.

Nonetheless, Christopher Columbus would not be the Italian I would uphold. So today, we honored Indigenous Peoples by watching a wonderful documentary called “Reel Injun” about the portrayal of Native Americans in the US film industry. A good ritual a family could easily practice at home, or a discussion group could do at church.

A Fast Fix for the US Government Revolving Door

Just in case you’ve been too busy to look at the 1790 US Census — signed by Thomas Jefferson! — here’s synopsis I’ll be using to make my point. (Citation: Haines, Michael. “Fertility and Mortality in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 19, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/fertility-and-mortality-in-the-united-states/)

One fact jumps out: Life expectancy as late as 1850 was less than forty years old, even for white Americans.

What does this mean? The Constitution’s minimum ages for office are shamefully out of keeping with today’s life expectancy. James Madison and his team feared hot-headed youth at the reins of power, just as they feared hot-headed mobs choosing the US Senate or a hot-headed President launching a war. Elevated minimum ages were also a subtle means of imposing a wealth requirement, because what killed a lot of young adult males was accidents involved in making a living. Hunting accidents that turned into gangrene. Blade-related accidents that turned into tetanus. Bad water and unpreserved food that took out the digestive tract. Folks with servants and slaves to run these risks didn’t just have the chance to get an education when young, they had a chance to eat, drink, and make merry during their young adult years without chopping off a foot the next day or succumbing to a buddy’s missed aim in the field.

What does this mean for our era? People are using Congress as a stepping stone to lucrative careers in lobbying, contracting, and at the upper reaches of financial and educational money mills. And the Presidency! Either we’re going to have to execute them on their last day in office, or plan to have nothing but dynasties from now on.

So here’s my simple plan. Never mind the US Senate, which has become such a millionaires’ club (not that being a millionaire is that big these days). Let’s take all branches of government and require everyone at the federal level to have reached 55 years of age before they can be considered for public service. US Supreme Court and the rest of the federal bench, everyone in the Congress, and above all else, the White House.

This doesn’t just mean the public officials will have had to have a long-term track record, but their children will have had to do something besides getting in line to continue the family industry. This might give what’s left of local media a way to re-energize themselves, because most of what a member of Congress will have done will now be researchable when they run. By definition, members of Congress will have several generations of work and personal record on which run, which will greatly temper their ability to proclaim strong ideals and party loyalty. But if we’ve learned anything from the Bush and other dynasties (Michael Powell comes to mind), employing the immediate family of office-holders and party-leaders constitutes a back-door form of bribery. Here is where local and national media need to develop thick skin and investigate not just the candidate’s money, but everyone on which their family has deep confidence.

Up here in Vermont, we have this situation more or less by accident, because our small population means we have few top-of-ballot offices and therefore, anyone who wants them has to have spent a long time earning them. The one person who tried to buy one of them — Richard Tarrant, who ran for the US Senate against Bernie Sanders when Jim Jeffords retired — has entered electoral lore as the candidate who spent money per vote in a losing effort.

And how did he lose against the fifteenth-poorest member of the Senate? He faced someone who had shaken every hand in the state, repeatedly for several decades. And before that, every hand in the state’s population center, again for most of a decade. Everyone knows him. We don’t like everything about him, but he has no secrets that deeply affect how we feel about him. Even now, when someone is running an ad pointing out that his wife got a golden parachute to leave her job at Burlington College, most of us know how much it was.

Huntington’s Disease and Herculaneum

When I wrote fondly last week about my joy at playing house, did I mention that it sits on a volcano? Like all volcanoes, this one troubles and frightens in various ways, but not all the time, and not in any pattern. Maybe it’s more like living near several volcanoes, each with its own separate pattern. You might have seen one of those documentaries about the various Iceland volcanoes. One blows straight up in the air, one kind of seeps, another threatens to spew forth enough heat to bury the nearby towns and farms with mud from rapid melting of its usually beautiful glacier. Each of those unpronounceable names has particular characteristics, each of which signals a clear and separate scenario to volcanologists.

The name of our volcano is Huntington’s Disease. It lives in my wife like a parasite, often resting, but always on the lookout for some way to kidnap her body and turn it against us. When we married, I told the minister to announce that our marriage has three participants, because she fights the disease with as much detachment as I do. It has not become her new being, even though it changes her shapes and talents in irreversible ways.

Three weekends ago, as I dug out one of the tougher tree roots, my mind flashed an image — as it does in so many stray moments — of the flash-fried corpses discovered so recently at Herculaneum, at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. When the lava engulfed them, it perfectly preserved the poses in which they sought comfort. If a shout should come from my open living room window, and I arrived too late to forestall the fall, the choking incident, whatever it would be that would cut short her life, my tree stump would be like one of those Herculaneum bodies: caught mid-task for ages to come.|

Other times, the volcano that looms is Kilauea, the constantly oozing lava that slowly crunches over Hawaii’s trees and roads and houses. My wife just slows down, does less. Fighting the disease is so constant, and although it takes over the brain, it controls the entire body. After a long, ambitious day, she’s likely to spend the next one looking as if she were walking under water. Maybe only sleeping.

But the one that scares me the most is Mt. Pinatubo. Perhaps you remember those films from the Philippines, no more than about twenty years ago. There were warning signals and evacuations, saving thousands of lives. But then, when the mountain erupted, spewing ash into a tropical rainstorm that would have been a disaster all on its own, mud spattered down everywhere. Lahars — lava-mixed mud — rolled down in large rivers, while lava-mixed rain coated the countryside as if in some overdone theatrical: whiteface on the people, the cattle, the pets, the cars and trucks and squalid little bags that held their lives.

What will our lahar-rain look like? Maybe she’ll swallow too much liquid into her lungs and be strangled by that vicious pneumonia. Maybe she’ll fall and suffer one of the major disabilities that beset us women of sixty and over. If these things happen, she will still be my wife, but our cute little home will be shattered. My caregiving-based funding will end when she enters the hospital or residential care. My ties to the community are tenuous, because I spend so much time at home, but residential care or hospitalization will completely uproot me. I’ll look like one of those tree stumps whose roots lie cut around them.

Huntington’s Disease has no cure, and after all the excitement about finding its genetic marker, the subsequent decade has revealed that the gene requires activators the doctors don’t understand. There are some correlative factors that seem important, but no one knows why. My wife is the youngest — one of the risk factors — and her father was somewhat older when she was born — which is now factoring into several neurological syndromes. On the other hand, it appears that in her family the activators have delayed the onset of symptoms past the point they would have been predicted by just the genetic marker.

Maybe you don’t care about this, because no one in your family has this disease. But it’s the only hereditary member of a cluster that might well rumble into your life — Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, maybe even ALS or MS. More and more, our research communities are cross-fertilizing each other. Yes, ALS is still the worst, and fully deserving of all that ice-bucket money you might have heard about. But would you spare a thought for us, living here in this cluster of volcanoes, and donate for research into Huntington’s Disease? We need brain scans to identify the sectors of each HD brain as it wins and loses particular regional battles. My wife, for instance, has phenomenal intellectual capacity, but impulse control and anxiety attacks slice into our lives almost daily.

Next Saturday, September 27, 2014, our humble little Vermont chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, will walk to raise funds. Our chapter has expenses — a paid convener — and dreams, such as a local residential facility, so caregivers can maintain rooted lives when our loved ones are no longer at home. Please click on our website and make a donation:

http://www.hdsa.org/team-hope-2012/lets-get-started/map/burlington-vt.html

And thank you.

Caregiving Enters a New Season: Miscellanies from Tiriduum in Vermont

Easter has meant different things at different times in my life. You know the flow: from one of the two annual candy days of childhood, to the young adult choice to either ignore it or study it passionately, to the young parenting years of passing along traditions and watching kids grow through them. Then came the post-parenting years of Easter as a model for self-reinventing. Then came gardening and not thinking much about Jesus.

And now I’m turning sixty. What was this last Triduum in my fifties?

Not much church, and none of it focused on Jesus. But all those long weekends at King’s Chapel turn out to have been bulbs well-planted: throughout an apparently non-religious Triduum, little reflections kept popping up at stray moments, illuminating moments that no one would describe as particularly brilliant.

Good Friday turns out to be a great day for reflecting on the transitions of retirement. Familiar life is no longer waning, ebbing, but rapidly passing away. You reach for things that aren’t there, get confused, and look into spaces whose once-empty appearance now shimmer into promising forms. These forms will become shapes, and from these shapes, new structures for new life will arise. But right now, on Good Friday, all you see is that these forms have replaced ghosts and companions you thought would last forever. That you thought you would want to last forever.

Holy Saturday is a quiet day. One never knows quite what to do. Back on Boston, my friend Nina and I used to wonder if it was sacrilegious to feast on Boston’s springtime glory when so recently we’d immersed ourselves not only in the suffering of Jesus, but in the awareness that he undertook that suffering in solidarity of so much human suffering everywhere, all around. Shouldn’t we be showing the same solidarity?

And then Easter. Since my partner sings in the choir, Huntington’s Disease be damned: there are two Hallelujah Choruses to fling joyously toward a congregation whose primary definition of Easter might well be that it’s when you get to hear the choir sing The Hallelujah Chorus. The great thing about each of the Christian seasons is that it starts with good intentions, and, unlike the secular year, provides a reasonable interval to maintain them and then celebrate having done so.

So Easter, this year, for me, marks simply the beginning of another season. As far as seasons go, 2014 for me will be the Year of Candlemas. Because it had neither theological nor outdoor messages this year — just snowstorm after snowstorm, with occasional variations of ice — the weeks from Epiphany to Ground-hog’s Day had the wonderful effect of letting me garden my house. One cleans up after Christmas, takes down a few more decorations each day — but not all of them — to renew the indoor space, moving it, slowly but surely, toward the moment of welcoming new light. And in this legendary year, when those of us who are used to lots of snow and cold set records for snow and cold — in our case, all the way through March —  the endless white surfaces outside spread a perfect canvas for the sun to announce itself differently every day, every hour. 

Just as a clock runs down, the arrival of the new holy renders moot the season which preceded it. Candlemas ends in a cleaning flurry, preparing the home for Lent. But the stripped down home starts accumulating new stuff almost immediately. As the weather warms, new clothes come out and old ones get put away. Mud, gravel, and salt slowly age on the threshholds, and suddenly it seems sensible to clean the floors. 

That didn’t happen this year. Instead she started physical therapy. Lawyer stuff and doctor stuff overrode us. And all of a sudden, friends on Facebook started posting pictures of crocuses, saying that if I ventured out to lift the mulch, I, too, would find little green things. And this year, we’re in the final stages of setting up our own wedding.

Thank God Easter is a whole season. Once again, I’ll be using all six weeks to organize, to beautify, to set up our little piece of heaven for Vermont’s tiny summer. There are indeed little green things poking through, when I rake away the mats of leaf mulch. People are actually planning to join us for our wedding, and smiling about the idea of it. We’ll spend only a few days out of our house, and then, come home to start another season.