Shoes Off

In our house we take off our shoes at the front door. We acknowledge that we need our home to have a barrier between it and the muck of the world. We adventure out, we play and run and work in the world, but we try to keep our home free from the crumbles of the world. 

In mosques and Islamic centers they have racks or entire closets near the front door where everyone removes their shoes. 

In Exodus 3:5 Allah called to Moses to remove his shoes as he approached the burning bush, for where he stood was holy ground. 

In the Shinto tradition there is a genkin that is used to remove the shoes at the entry of all homes and temples. 

There is acknowledgement that the dirt of the world doesn’t need tread into our home, literal or spiritual.

In a world where there is not just literal and spiritual dirt, but also a whirlwind of anxiety, the line of where to try to stop the muck from coming in becomes much murkier. This isn’t the crunchy fall leaves or the chalky gravel of your afternoon walk stuck between tennis shoe treads. This is part of the full experience of being human in this time and place.

It is nearly impossible to shake the world off as we move between the space of being part of the larger culture and part of the internal world, be it family or individual. 

On the day of a mass shooting, it’s hard to keep the conversation chipper while the pasta cooks. 

Articles about the imprisoned children at our Southern Border, missing their Day of the Dead celebrations with their families, laced the experience of taking my own child Trick or Treating with a thick gratitude and surreal sadness.

It is not a bad thing to feel empathetic connection to the world, but it does mean that we have to be conscious of the impact of the world’s anxieties on our own internal and familial relationships.  

Some variations of religions have a degree of separation from the chaos and anxiety of the world. Their religious practices and their faith traditions are fundamentally on a separate plane from the nitty gritty stressors of the world. For better or worse, they are not swayed, their practices and pulpits are not moved by the social justice crises unfolding. Not out of coldness, but out of a conceptualization that religion is not about the earthly. 

Some families seem to handle the world with similar distance. The dishes get done and Bernie Sanders name never comes up. The laundry gets folded while watching HBO, not while listening to NPR. 

Unitarian Universalism does not offer that separation. Social Justice, awareness of the most messy, dirty, heartbreaking bits of the world, is a fundamental part of the Unitarian and Universalist identity. 

Unitarian Universalists are not expecting to leave behind the painful parts of this world, but instead to engage together to facilitate understanding and to working to heal the parts of the world we see suffering. We are not looking to gather in a way that transcends the earthly, because the earthly is the lived experience. 

However, what that means is that we must be aware and cognizant of the way the outside stressors impact our communities and our families. We invite anxiety into our system by inviting the focus to be on justice and progress. Justice and progress can only become central markers of a conversation when injustice and brutality are acknowledged and witnessed. And without a shared monochromatic understanding of the universe, we cannot speak easily to that which is beyond the earthly suffering and injustice to which we speak, witness, and battle. 

Because of this active witnessing, we must actively lean in, past the tensions, into our shared community. We have to make sure that we are separating the anxiety of our larger system, our tensions and fears, from our experience of learning and growing and fighting for justice together. 

This means leaning in when we walk in the door of our home and of our congregation. 

I know that I have been shorter with those I love, had a harder time focusing in on the moment, on the days where our democracy seems so fragile, on days when the photos or the NPR voices won’t stop echoing. It is harder to be present on the days when the journalists give up on articles and instead just update the same article, giving a new timestamp header for each new update. 

Since the 2016 election, with the rise of White Nationalism, with the attacks on LGBT+ rights, with the horrible atrocities being committed in our name at the Southern Border, we are seeing increased anxiety in all the systems we are a part of. Our families, our friendships, our church communities, our workplace connections. This is especially true, I suspect, for those who hold their hearts on their sleeve. Because we are, by definition, people who are not looking away from the world. We are watching, grieving, and fighting for justice. 

This is not to say we should step away from this awareness and anxiety. Instead it is a call to be aware of how this great pressure puts increased systemic anxiety on us in our many homes. It is easy for process and the microcosm and those we love to absorb the anxieties of the world. It is not that focusing on the minutia actually soothes the world, of course, but it is predictable that those who are watching the world and aching might release some of that ache and anxiety into their daily interactions. Existing in this world is hard. 

This is not as easy as asking folks to take off their shoes when they walk in. We want each person who enters into the Unitarian Universalist church each Sunday to bring the weight of the world. The NPR article that has simmered in your heart all week, the NYTimes article photograph of the face of a migrant child you can’t shake from behind your eyes, the fears of preexisting condition or Roe v. Wade rollbacks. 

I want my partner to share with me the thing he just can’t shake. Or to find an extra long hug in the moments that he needs it, even if he doesn’t want to regurgitate the details of the news article or the newest Tweet. 

The aware, engaged, and hurting are gathered here. This is their home. Dismantling the systemic anxiety of our culture, and helping folks to process the world without bringing that anxiety in and letting it loose into the workings of our community is a very deep quandary. But as a shared community focused on justice, in an unjust world, it is navigation that will have to happen. 

In all our relationships, our relationships with ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationship with our church community, we find ourselves at a point where reflection on the way that the anxieties of the world can become part of the systemic anxieties of our daily lives. And holding witness to that balance and impact is vital to nurture and care for those, all of those, we are in relationship with. 

The answer is not to leave our worries at the door, to kick off our boots and pretend that we exist separate from these very real tangible threats upon our world. But part of the answer is an awareness of the tensions, the million spider webs of anxiety and doubt that this era brings, and awareness of how they follow us into every conversation, every interaction. We can each work to pull those who we are in relationship with closer instead of allowing the pressures of the world to become a wedge. 

We are a justice minded people. We are, as the song goes, a gentle angry people. And we cannot leave that anger at the door. We must bring it in with us, hold it, and learn to coexist with each other while holding on to the fire of a passion for justice in this world. 

*This homily was first read at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield on November 6th, 2019.

The Story of Labor Day

Copy of Untitled (3)This weekend is Labor Day Weekend, celebrated across this nation. Most of us have tomorrow off from school and work. Many of us will go down and watch the Labor Day parade tomorrow morning. Local Unions drive their big work trucks through the streets and throw candy. Politicians pass out little American flags and there is a big picnic afterward. 

The battle for worker’s rights in this country has been a long story, fought in picket lines and folk songs lyrics. While great improvements have been made in the quality of worker’s conditions and rights, the struggle for labor rights is not over. The battles for human conditions are still ongoing in many trenches. There are still people working “part-time” and “seasonal” jobs, as corporations drop employee hours to skate under the healthcare mandate limbo bar. There are still many places where basic discrimination protections are not in place, leaving our LGBT siblings at daily risk. Minimum wage in many places, including in the Ozarks, is not a living wage. Still, the days of company stores and seventy hour weeks are primarily over and there are clear laws in place surrounding child labor and safe working conditions. 

This is different from the way it was, before people organized into groups called unions and demanded workers rights. Labor Day as a national holiday was designed to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” to the public. That was the initial goal of a celebration of Labor Day, written into the papers outlining the need. It was a day to exhibit the strength of labor. It was a time to march, fill the streets.

Labor Day was instated as a national holiday as a result of the Pullman Strikes. The Pullman Strikes were train strikes in 1894. Although the activist epicenter was in Detroit, their shockwaves were felt across the nation’s train yards. The strikes became so large and destructive that the President of the United States at the time, President Cleveland, sent the federal government in to manage the situation. 

When President Cleveland sent people in, public sentiment was largely on the side of the government, but that changed as people watched what unfolded. The result of the federal government attempting to shut down or dampen the strikes was violence. Many people were injured and some people died. This was before cell phone videos and Tweets, but waves of concern slowly washed across the country. People were worried about what they heard had happened. People across the nation demanded that the workers be celebrated and protected. Within a week of the strikes ending, Congress and President Cleveland (the same President who had sent the feds into the strike to begin with) had signed Labor Day into a national holiday.

Labor Day was created as a direct response to the hard work of people who banded together to demand fair treatment. This weekend was designed as a way to honor those sacrifices, and remind the workers of their strength. 

This Time For All Ages was presented on September 1, 2019 at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield. An audio recording of the reading is available through the congregational Youtube channel. It was adapted from a sermon written by AJ Fox in September of 2013. 

January 5th

On January 5th, 1709, a great cold came to Europe. People could not stay warm, and even huddled near a fire they wrote their accounts with shaking fingers. Livestock died in their sleep, chickens suffered frost bite. Winter wheat crops failed. Fruit trees and olive trees died. People died on the side of the roads. Shipments of food stopped coming into the major cities. The resulting starvation killed at least 600,000 people, although estimates of a million are more reasonable. The winter of 1709, according to scientist Jürg Luterbacher, was seven degrees lower than the current average temperature.

Another scientist, Jason Head, has dug up the skeleton of a huge snake in Columbia. The snake was about 40 feet long and weighed 2,000 pounds. Snakes growth is limited by global temperature, and the scientists number crunching determined that the temperature in Colombia would have had to be seven degrees higher than the current average temperature.

These two facts were published in the New Scientist, thirty pages apart, in 2009.

So…

How do you feel about olive trees? About plum trees?

How do you feel about giant snakes the size of a semi-truck?

Things to consider.

Giant snake offers a glimpse of future warming. (2009). New Scientist, 201(2694), 16.

Pain, S. (2009). The year that Europe froze solid. New Scientist, 201(2694), 46.

 

*Composed January 5th, 2015.

January 6th

There are four metal plates hanging on my kitchen wall. They are the kind of plates that a grandmother buys, that display art halfway between kitsch and class. This particular set I fell in love with in a thrift store a few years ago. I paid 4.95 each for them, on a day that twenty bucks for a wall hanging felt like a lot.

The set is based on four paintings that were produced by Norman Rockwell in 1943. They depict Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.

Rockwell produced them in response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration speech on January 6, 1941 advocating for the recognition of these basic human rights.

My relationship with these images is difficult to explain. I feel some sort of intense emotion looking at each one. Rockwell nails it. Speech, a slightly gristled man who has the respect of the men in suits while they listen to him. Want, with the table and the family and the everything sacred. Fear, with the tucking the child in, with the warmth. Worship, even, tugs on me. I want these things. I want the plates on the wall, I want the ideals in my home.

I support each one, yet the entire point of Roosevelt’s post was to engage in an active shift away from our isolationist position and propel us into World War II. The same arguments that were being used in the Four Freedoms speech are beings used today.

Bring democracy, bring hope, bring freedom. And bring McDonalds and Bank of America while you are at it.

It’s such a fine line. One I have no idea how to walk, one my clumsy Chucks trip over. So it is, to be an American and yet sometimes fear America.

FourFreedoms

*Composed January 6th, 2015

 

January 7th

npr fills us in
we discuss in hushed voices
over breakfast
as if talking too loud
might make it worse

half a world away from France
it hurts to go to work
i find solace in my role as
library
front line protector
of the books
of the magazines

all i want to do is break things
at the injustice
i want to snap
every pencil
snap the halves
in half
until they are nothing

but i do not break the pencil in my hand

in wars past we have
shipped our support in bombs

wrapped in yellow ribbon
i am mailing my pencils to paris

*Composed January 7th, 2015, in response to the Charlie Hebdo Shooting.

Thor

From the dusky claustrophobic bedroom,
I watch the storm roll in.
It was dark when it started,
now light gray sneaks by.

My corgi has been in bed with me since 6:30 am.
6:30 was two hours ago.
Cowering under the covers.
He barks at the storm,
with each thunder crack.
He does not understand.
He is terrified by this unknown attack.

I sympathize with him.
I do not fear the storm,
my base of the skull bickering finds solace
in the white noise of the precipitation.

But I know the muscle tension
in his body as he lays here with me.
I know the feeling fear makes
when it is drawn tight against your bone.

I hear his theory of the unknown.
Dog brains have enough
neural horsepower to imagine.
To create explanations for the unknown,
even if they lack the language for it.

And if a corgi brain works anything like mine,
the image painted on the sistine chapel
of wet skull is startling in it’s starkness.

If silence can be a rabbit hole,
a tornado of maybes that don’t have answers,
what must it be like when the unseeable,
omnipresent fear has a sound?
Rattles the windows?

I tell my corgi fairytale bedtime stories.
About how Thor lives above us,
in the clouds up there.
I tell him that Thor and his dad are fighting,
like we fight,
this corgi and I.

Maybe Thor ate an entire box of watercolor pencils again.

Maybe Thor rolled all over the clean laundry with his awful corgi body.

I make Thor reflect my corgi,
since Gods are more relatable when they are in our image.

Maybe, Maybe Thor ate the liners out of an important pair of shoes
and then puked up the mess all over the kitchen floor again.

Thor and his dad are fighting.
Thor is throwing his hammer around.
But they aren’t mad at us,
punnie humans and punnie corgis.

I tell him in a soothing tone that this will pass.

I tell him that this room is our cave,
that we are safe here.
That the dark will hide us,

I tell him that time will heal the emotional wounds
of the creatures above us.
That we just have to ride out this storm.

Eventually, as the windows stop shaking,
the corgi, his body relaxes.
See? I say.
See? It stopped. Thor and his dad made up.

The corgi is asleep now.
His body soft against mine.
The storm has passed.
But I stay with him in the dark.
In the gray

After all, it is nearly nine in the morning,
and I am still in bed.
In the cave.
I am still talking to the corgi.
I am still refusing to go outside.

I have gotten good at these fairy tale yarns
of how the storm will pass for him.

But in the eye of the storm it is still so hard
for me to see how the sun will rise again.

And everything I tell myself,
words I pray will taste like fairy tales?
They only taste like pennies and lies.

Game Fail

The men who flirt, their nervous teeth, their jaw
so worried wanting meat, I undertake
to halfway meet and humanize, yet draw
my boundaries in grease, thick not opaque.

Clear comprehension of the dance, helps heart
to be kind, but the dance has ended poor,
too many, many times, to take full part
with carefree carelessness of a voyeur.

And then hot man comes to my desk to seek,
out Emerson, Thoreau. My heart is pound.
My skin is sweat. We talk, my game so weak.
I watch his face and know he is not down.

The role of man, to cast the net, tough chin
rejection stand, is bitter medicine.

April 6th

Far out from the street lamps and Arby’s signs,
on beyond gravel, mud, bent red locked fence,
a telescope reads braille, celestial lines,
of life split scattered milky stories, past tense.

Crunched up cans stack, smoke curls, creating lore,
a history of stars and human place.
The sky held once scant nothing, metaphor,
where meaning takes on human form and face.

But now the void is scattered satellite,
the data spins from our slick metal pods.
We use this tool to stream our Spotify,
to cheer as mantis battles anthropods.

Eyes once trained toward skies of pupil gray,
at screens rare blink, as kittens roll and play.

Input of dullness dense, such neural slay,
as heads turn down to monitor display.

We fall for bright like moths to street lamp frauds,
forgetting how to stare with awe glazed eye,
at stars so clear, our tongues can twist to gods,
bones bound tight to those we in-group ally.

The metal bits, our tiny moons in space
our crowning jewels, sent up from spit and ore.
Slick settlement of sky, cold war first place,
with just reward the dick pics sent galore.

And those that rise in quiet dark’s defense,
who drive out past the population lines,
have no in-group, for talks of future tense
and find in stars no god or godly signs.

April 6th, 1965 – Early Bird becomes the first commercial communications satellite to reach geosynchronous orbit.

*Composed April 6th, 2015

May 14th

Funny coincidences happen in the Universe. To see the gears click into alignment you have to have all the pieces in focus. The iris of your eye, contracting muscle, has to tighten just right, to let the light enter through your pupil. Like a camera focusing, letting you see the details of your subject, excluding the unimportant and irrelevant.

The focus of the eye, the focus of the camera, allows you to see a moment in clarity.

In western European art, perfect portrayal and replication of that pupil light stream was the goal for years. The topics were often absurd, angels and demons and unicorns, but the goal was to trick the mind, to create realistic images with paint and brush.

Realism, perfect portrayal of the world, comes and goes as a goal. We are there again, with digital animation. The aim is portrayal of a world in such detail that the brain can nearly recognize the light as a reflection of reality.

In the 1950s and 1960s, realism was mainly “out”. Pollack and Picasso were where it was at, abstracted interpretations of the world. There were a few really dedicated painters that kept translating light as they saw it (Rockwell comes to mind) but mainly the cutting edge was moving to abstraction.

Robert Bechtle’s work, images paper thin distances from photographs, was an exception. His subject matter was the nearly mundane, the streets of the San Francisco Bay area, concrete and pale brights. His paintings capture the Oldsmobile station wagons and the slouching kids on sidewalks he saw around him.

In a 2005 article on Bechtle in The New Yorker, author Peter Schjeldahl wrote: “Life is incredibly complicated, and the proof is that when you confront any simple, stopped part of it you are stupefied.” That sentence sums up what is so stunning about Bechtle’s work. Even one split second in a random day on a random street is worthy of deep inspection.

While Bechtle was getting good at capturing the mundane in San Francisco, Richard Estes was coming to the same point in Illinois. Born in central Illinois, Estes found his inspiration on the busy streets of Chicago. Where Bechtle was drawing suburbs and station wagons, Estes was drawing subways and bus stops. But the technique, the impeccable focus on the snapshot of reality, was so similar.

Both Bechtle and Estes capture the most simplistic moments of daily life, and represent them in photorealism. One in San Francisco, one in Chicago. And the focus click, the little coincidence that makes the eye catch?

Today is their 83rd birthday. Both of them. On May 14th, 1932, two hyperrealist painters of incredible talent were born, two thousand miles apart. The gears clicked, and just for a moment the world came into focus.

*Composed May 14th, 2015

Thanks, Springfield

I pass as girl when walking down the street.
My frame is small, exposed ankles and wrists.
Pale legs are smooth. I skirt. I sway like meat.
My hair has length to wrap around men’s fists.

You take up space like I do not. You stalk
with shoulders back. Your hair cropped, spiked and short.
Boy pants. You come from gender twisting stock.
You are my kind, but you face Springfield’s hurt.

This week we voted out your kind. The sort
of girl that shows her skin. Who walks the walk.
You face the street, sleeve pinned with bloody heart
and your rights are minced, cut up, chopping block.

I hide by wearing skirts and fucking men.
But in bigoted eyes, my heart has sin.

 

*Written in response to Springfield voting to repeal a non-discrimination ordinance.
**Written at a time when my gender presentation leaned towards the more feminine.

 

May 15th

My grandfather had gold jewelry. Like too much Godfather. Chains hung like armor against our poverty. He had shoes of soft shined leather shoes.

He would come through every six months or so, a few days with us was never too much. He said family began to smell like dead fish after three days. But he kept coming back.

When I was six he came through town and bought us each a Happy Meal. Fries and a cheeseburger and orange soda in a tiny little waxed paper white cup. We each received the same toy. A blue plastic train, with glitter and wheels that hypnotized from a show we had never watched. From a show we would never watch.

It was the only time I ever remember getting a Happy Meal. We had the toys, dug out of the nickel boxes of other people’s garage sales on sweaty sun screen Saturday mornings. Disney characters and small transforming creatures, french fry cartons that twisted into robots. Other people’s lost trophies, in my mind. But never our own.

I treasured the blue glittered molded engine for years. It was the only one I ever got first hand, with orange soda to stain my tongue.

– May 15th, 1940 – McDonald’s opens its first restaurant. –

*Composed May 15th, 2015.

A Place to Pee

At the Town Hall Meeting a couple Sundays ago, the topic of bathrooms came up again. It’s a topic we have been wandering around now for a couple years. How do we take this building, with it’s split floors and ADA inaccessible multi-stall bathrooms and, and make it something that is inclusive to everyone. While, you know, not spending money.

It’s a hard question. It’s a difficult question. It’s a question for committees, and then the board, and then the congregation. But I wanted to share here, with y’all, a conversation that I had this weekend in Lenexa, Kansas, with a young trans man.

This weekend I traveled with a group of our youth to a regional Youth Assembly at SMUUCh. It was joyous. The topic for the conference with LGBT+ activism.
These were not just our youth. This was youth from five congregations across Kansas and Missouri. (All Souls, SMUUCh, First UU of Springfield, Columbia, and Selina.) The total headcount was 30 youth and 8 advisors. The church was a whirlwind of activity from 7 pm Friday until 9:30 am Sunday.

Because of the topic of the Youth Assembly, and the nature of UU churches youth programs these days, the youth had a strong standing of LGBT+ representation. I’d say 30-50% of the kids were LGBT+. This led to constant stream of conversation about LGBT+ issues from the youth, with us old advisors sitting around, mainly just listening.

The topic of bullying and high school and bathrooms came up. In the small circle I was in there were several transbinary and transnonbinary youth. And they began, organically, sharing their stories about finding a place to pee.

To zoom out a minute… Bathroom accessibility is a fundamental battleground in trans rights. Being able to pee, knowing you are safe to pee in public, is a basic human right that many people currently do not have.

In recent polls, 32% of trans folks report that they have limited the amount they ate or drank in public so that they wouldn’t have to use an unsafe restroom. 8% of trans folks report KIDNEY ISSUES because they don’t use public restrooms because of safety concerns.

So here I am, and I know that. But these kids are talking about their real lived daily experiences.

I’m in a conversation with this young man. Trans. 15? 16? Very masculine presenting. Binds, passes as an adolescent boy.

And he tells me, tells the group, his strategy for using the restroom. He doesn’t hold back on going pee at school. He can’t. He is at school all day. There are no gender neutral or single stall restrooms. He has to pee. And he clearly doesn’t belong in the women’s restroom. So he uses the men’s room. Where he belongs.

But he doesn’t wash his hands. He goes in, head down, uses the stall as quickly as possible, walks out, without washing his hands.

He says the mirrors, where other people can see your face, are the worst part. The part that feel the most dangerous.

He keeps hand sanitizer on a zipper pull on his backpack. As soon as he is out of the restroom he uses copious amounts. He always makes sure he has hand sanitizer.

He is not complaining, as he tells us this. He’s somewhat proud that he has an out from the worst part. It honestly sounds like the hand sanitizer is comforting. Like he has found a way to opt out of part of the risk.

I don’t tell him that hand sanitizer doesn’t kill MRSA and other bacteria. I listen, I nod. Other youth share their stories. How they try real hard not to use the restroom in public, or how they go to the nurse’s office to pee once in the middle of the day.

At the church we were at there are binary restrooms. Mens/Boys and Womens/Girls. It is an old building, and it is clear the signage is from when the building was a school, years ago. However, there was also signage under each old sign declaring where the gender neutral restrooms were, and that nobody better give anyone else hassle about which bathroom they selected.

The best restrooms in the place are gender neutral bathrooms that are single stall. One is just outside the sanctuary, a beautiful remodeled freshly tiled single stall gender neutral restroom. If you are in worship service and need to pee, this is where you go. Regardless of who you are.

All weekend, everyone in the building got to pee where they wanted. The young trans men and trans women walked into the binary restrooms shoulders back. Comfortable. The nonbinary youth used the gender neutral restrooms. Over the weekend I saw several youth who actively smiled, grinned, as they walked in the restroom. It was part of the pleasure they had in coming to the UU church, to this big messy assembly. They knew they were safe, among these peers. The bathrooms told them they were welcomed.

I don’t have solutions for how to make our building accessible. I have ideas, but like I said at the start, this is a matter of committees, board, and ultimately congregation. But I can’t shake the image of this young man each day at school, head down, hustling out of the bathroom, past the sinks, because the simple human dignity of washing his hands is just too scary.

And I can’t shake the memory of the same young man, smiling, as he walked into a restroom that he knew was safe.

*This Homily was first presented at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield. A recording is available on Youtube.