Sunday, March 23, 2014

#17: Smoke

Apparently, Fred Phelps died. I won't lie: I think the world is a little brighter without his footprint, though his actions will continue to reverberate for a long time. I'll admit: it's easy for me to let him slip from my mind. He never directly hurt me. I think his mission was disgusting, but my existence was not called a pestilence of the earth.

Last week, an old friend un-friended me on Facebook. I don't totally know why--though I have my guesses. I'm Mennonite, a pacifist, and in general fairly liberal. I'm not saying this friend isn't some of those things, but I think one too many peacenik-y links on Facebook was too many. I've written this friend twice since I was dumped, but the lack of response to both tells me it's over for the foreseeable future. I've had a busy week, so I haven't had a lot of time to reflect on this turn of events. I've finally had a minute to consider the end of the relationship: how I'd valued the fact that we were people with differing views who still managed to remain friends; how we talked about what we had in common rather than what we didn't; how I was a fool to think this friend valued our friendship as much as I did.

My temptation is to send one more message of anger and frustration, and spew the darkest bile at this friend, which is probably what some of Fred's victims want to do. This, of course, is on a much smaller scale than the anger of the LGBTQ community, and I don't mean to imply that this friend's behavior is anywhere near his behavior. It just made me realize how easy it is to let plain old hurt get the better of me.  I know that to let anger and hate pour from my fingers only hurts me in the end.

When I took the final driving test for my license, a wall of smoke from a field fire suddenly surrounded the car. I wanted so badly to hit the brakes, but I knew there were at least three cars behind me. So I carefully slowed down and drove through the smoke. The instructor said how calm I seemed and how I'd made the right decision. I think he was a bit surprised. I didn't admit it at the time, but I felt anything but calm. Somehow my body decided not to obey the frantic calls from my brain to stop. Frankly, I think that wall of smoke was the only reason I passed the test, because I nearly turned into oncoming traffic an hour later!

I hope I keep steady and that my fingers refuse to do what's in my mind.

Friday, March 7, 2014

#16: R4 in the Heart of a Mennonite Community

An African American-owned restaurant demolished in Harrisonburg, Va.
This is an edited version of another letter I sent to Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MCUSA. 

MCUSA, whether we like it or not, is at a crossroads, and it's difficult to be at the helm when this happens. But I'm ashamed of how the Mennonite church has dealt with issues of racism and sexism in the past (and present), and I think it's better for us to be at the forefront of change rather than waiting for it to be okay in the rest of the world and then change.

When I was a student at Eastern Mennonite University, I learned that the city of Harrisonburg demolished entire African American neighborhoods in the name of progress during segregation. I wrote a story about this for the campus paper, The Weather Vane. (I don't have a copy of my article, but Lauren McKinney wrote about Proposition R4 in Eightyone.) At one point, I interviewed professors who were around during this time, and asked them what the Mennonite church said or did about this injustice. One looked embarrassed and said they thought it was a good thing at the time. 

People were routed from their homes and the Mennonite church did nothing to stop it. It was ingrained in the Mennonites of Harrisonburg (big proponents of community) that African Americans needed to be relocated for economic progress, and that their community was not important. It has been ingrained in Mennonites of many places that people who do not fit the sexual norm are not of God's creation and at best should be celibate.

We are all racist, homophobic, sexist people at one time or another, whether we mean to be or not. Anyone who thinks they are not these things at some point in their lives is kidding themselves. I think we need to recognize these things in ourselves rather than push it away. It is only when we are honest about one's actions or feelings that we can change. 

I live in the Bronx. My neighborhood is like the UN. I am often the only white face on the bus or subway. I am aware of the different races around me. I used to be embarrassed by this awareness. But now I accept it and I know that the best way to change is to embrace my race and the races of those around me. I try to see my beauty and their beauty, and hope to see our beauty together some day. I smile at those around me, and more often than not, I receive a smile back. I think if more people who are against the official inclusion of LGBTQ members would simply smile at these members and get to know them as people, we would be on a more progressive path. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

#15: My Walden, Your Walden

More than a decade ago, I visited Walden Pond with some friends. Before we arrived, I had some rather romantic visions of what Walden Pond would be like: quiet; secluded; stretches of grassy embankments perfect for a picnic or a nap; quaint woods for a blithe hike.

It was none of those things. Instead, it reminded me of the Reservoir near where I grew up, with brackish water, the scent of garbage and port-a-podies, gravelly beaches, and hundreds of shrieking children.

I've been thinking about that day at Walden as I think about morals. A few weeks ago, as I was convalescing from a nasty cold, I got into a Facebook tiff about morals, and whether there is a scale of morality. Is one activity, like shooting up heroin (the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman was the jumping off point), more immoral than other self-damaging activities, like eating a lot of fatty food? Is dying of an overdose more immoral than dying of disease due to eating habits? It ended, as all great Facebook arguments, at an impasse, where everyone came out of it feeling smug and self-righteous--myself included.

But I am still thinking about it, and am trying to decide why I think that they are both immoral. I am thinking about this while I think about how the real Walden didn't live up to my dreams.

I never really thought the Reservoir was bad when I was growing up. I have happy memories of digging in the sand, swimming in the murky water, and sleeping in my grandparents' RV. It was only later, in my teens and twenties, that I began to deride it, even as I still came out for a swim, a canoe ride, or a chat and a beer with my brothers. I suppose that those who live around Walden Pond feel the same way. They enjoyed it as children, and even when they realized its flaws, they still packed up their coolers and came out.

It's easier to accept something's flaws when it is familiar, and easier to demonize something that is not familiar. When I first learned about needle exchanges, I had my pious doubts about the morality of such operations. But when I saw (through Tom, who started working at one as a volunteer, and is now an overdose prevention director at the same agency) what good it did, I was convinced of its worth. Mingling with the participants at the agency also did wonders for my pious self. Suddenly, I was in contact with those who are the faceless statistics on drug use, HIV, Hep C, etc. Suddenly, I could not judge from afar anymore. How could I say that the friendly whitebearded dude was an immoral person, when he came up to me and smiled as if just seeing me had made his day? Even if he was going to ask for some money the next second, I knew his smile would remain on his face when I said no.

Had anyone said to my childhood self that eating a burger and fries every day was immoral, I would've laughed and thought they were secretly un-American. I might have admitted it to be unhealthy, but it was so common, it seemed perfectly normal behavior. Everyone else was doing it, so how could it be bad?

I'm not saying it's moral to use heroin. I'm not saying it's immoral to eat fatty food. It isn't the actions that are moral/immoral. They both can lead to devastation down the road. Whether you die of a heroin overdose or a heart attack because you ate fatty foods--you're still dead. You've still abandoned your family much too soon.

Monday, February 17, 2014

#14: Standing With My Community

This is the letter I sent to Ervin Stutzman, regarding MCUSA's statement about the inclusion of LGBTQ members as pastors:

These last few days have made me angry, sad, and tired. Not only has my home state attempted to make discrimination (in the name of religious freedom) legal, my church has once again begged off the responsibility of standing up for the "least of these" in our midst.

That is where these people are. Right here, right now. Whether they are "out" or not, they have been quietly attending Mennonite churches since the beginning, bidding on quilts at relief sales, cooking food for potlucks, serving as ushers or nursery workers, even standing at the pulpit. And yet, when they finally garner the courage to let their true voices rise up and ask for an official setting at the table, we squelch their request beneath the words "Scriptural Authority," "God's Will," "Discernment," "Spectrum of Opinion," "Forgiveness," and "Task Force." 

I am tired of it. I am tired of people I love being treated as though they are unworthy of the priesthood of believers. I am tired of continuing the charade of "discernment," which really means "shut up and let the righteous speak." I am tired of the supporters of our mistreated brothers and sisters having to couch their words of change between phrases like "not that those against the LGBTQ community in church are bigots" in order to get their words of change at least given a breath's chance.

But you know, that's what we all really are. Bigots. Each time we look the other way when a minority is treated like a thug, each time we cover our ears when a disabled person is made fun of, each time we pretend a same-sex couple is only a pair of "really good friends," we have taken part in the system that puts us on the inside and others on the outside. We are all guilty of this.

I am not a theologian. My ethics come from life experience. As a child, I was taught by my Mennonite church to believe being LGBTQ was an abomination. But then I met these "abominations," and I realized how they are simply people with childhoods and histories and loves and hates like me. And that was it. They are like me, and I am like them. They are no more or less perfect than I am. They are my community, and I am not going to let the pleas for "discernment" muffle their voices.

Friday, January 31, 2014

#13: No Traveller Returns

Catherine Friesen (right)
My Facebook page has been filled with death lately. Friends have shared posts about loved ones who have died or are assumed to be on the road to that place a little sooner than the rest of us. Catherine Friesen, who passed away on Monday from pancreatic cancer, played Hamlet this past fall. I would've loved to have seen her Hamlet. Catherine was a surprise actor; she had such a quiet, unassuming, and gentle soul, so that those who didn't know her would never suspect that she was one--which made her the best of actors. I only saw her onstage once, years ago, but I could feel that she had become her character. Catherine had truly disappeared.

I had a hard time sleeping last night, so I read Hamlet's famous soliloquy several times in her honor:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

At the same time, I have learned of (or recalled) suicides, and for a good 48 hours or so, I was really pissed off at those who have chosen to end their mortal coil, while others have been fighting tooth and nail to get a few more days or hours or seconds of this life. How can someone throw away the one surety we have in this world: life itself? It is such a selfish act.

I say this knowing of the demons that lurk in the mind, the soul, the gut. I say this knowing there have been dark times in my own life when I have wondered at the point in seeing one more day. Honestly, the only thing that kept me was Hamlet's confessed cowardice. My own selfishness has kept me from crossing that line, not care for those I'd leave behind.

I was also angry at the people that fill the world with hatred and ugliness who live to be a ripe old age, while so many gentle souls, like Catherine or another of my passed-on New York friends, Linda Hood, are gone too soon. I was angry that the roulette of the world landed on Catherine and Linda but whizzed past those who have no intention to bring love.

Somewhere after those 48 hours, I had a small epiphany: I cannot control what others do; I can only control what I do. I cannot control what life deals us; I can only control how I encounter it. 

I've known these things for years, but I don't think I've truly known them until this past week. And now that I know, I must act accordingly.

I'm still angry that Catherine is gone. I'm still furious about those who choose death. I feel endless sorrow for who've died or will die before they ought. I acknowledge fear about what happens after this breath. Yet somehow I feel more comfortable with my anger and fear.

As Horatio says: Now cracks a noble heart. Horatio honors the pain. Horatio acknowledges the too-soon-ness of the moment. But he lets it go as well: Good-night sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

#12: Tinkle

It's been a lazy day with much to show for it. I've nearly finished a new essay, watched a ridiculous amount of TV (TNG, Gilmore Girls, Keeping Up Appearances, and Brave), and have two full days of leisure still ahead of me. Well, if you don't count the laundry and our promise to clean and unpack the last few boxes that are gathering dust in the apartment on Monday.

The radiator is whistling and tinkling again. I love that sound. It makes me feel warmer just hearing it. I wish our radiator was as cute as the picture I found, but that one probably isn't nearly as warm as ours.

One of Tom's recent Facebook posts was: "Keep trying to remember to notice the wind on my face and the ground beneath my feet." 

I'm trying to keep that in mind myself these days. I want to appreciate what I have, whether I'm out and about or at home. I appreciated my shower more this morning than I had in a long time. Maybe it was because I'd not taken one in a few days, but the sense of the water and smell of the soap nearly shocked me to tears. It was a pleasure to just feel the heat run through each strand. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

#11: Chasing Doctors

I've spent most of the afternoon chasing doctors. I need a neurologist, but I need to get a damn PCP before I can even see a specialist, and the earliest appointment isn't until March 5! So, I've done some sleuthing, and I may be able to get an appointment with my neurologist from the last time I was in New York. Maybe she can slip me a prescription for my anti-epilepsy meds. We shall see. Haven't heard back from the office yet.

Even with the blessing of Obamacare, I still have to jump the usual hoops. I can only see certain doctors. I have to have a PCP who knows nothing about me make the referral. As if I don't know who/what I need! A brain doctor!