From Terminator to Tender: The Journey to an Open Heart

Light-in-Heart I heard Susan Piver at the first “Awake in the World” conference run by the Shambhala Mountain Center.  In a sea of voices, two stood out to me very clearly – Dr. Jan Chozen Bays who taught on mindful eating (that’s for another post) and Susan.  After her presentation I followed a link to The Open Heart Project. I liked all the words on the website (particularly “free”) and I knew what all the words meant except for the title.  What does it mean to have an “open heart?”

Fast forward two years.  I have been a member of the Open Heart Sangha for over a year, took refuge vows, and have a wonderful practice including meditation and a dharma talk every day possible. I am growing in spiritual health and balance. But the question continued to nag me. What does having an “open heart” mean to me?  So – in January, after months of pre-study – I made it my New Year’s intention to be more open-hearted – whatever that means. Think of this as my “first quarter review” of this amazing journey.

 Hope or Fear?

In our monthly dharma talk Susan said something that helped me frame this odyssey into words I can type.

“We don’t experience people for who they are. We experience them through two lenses: the lens of hope (Will they be kind to me? Will they love me? Will they leave me alone? Will they accept me?) or the lens of fear (Will this person hurt me? Do I need to keep them away from me? Does the way they act make me feel good about my life or bad about the world?).”   Susan Piver, “Walking in Each Other’s Shoes” 4/1/2016

Hope or fear.  For the vast majority of my life fear wasn’t just my lens, it was my survival technique, my protection, my intuition and my daily bread. Even when I’ve approached someone with hope – it was laden with protective fear (“Enjoy them, but don’t get attached. Pain can come any moment.”).  For me – to live as an open-hearted person is to find the middle ground between hope and fear – to see others as they are, and to share myself as who I truly am (in this moment) as well.

People First

That might sound like an obvious statement or the advertising pitch for some awful soul sucking corporate entity – but for me it is quite a revelation. I hate people.  I spent my first career as “the minister who hates people” only to go into my second as “the writer who hates people” and I fear I am soon to be known as “the Buddhist who hates people.”   It isn’t really hate, of course. It is fear. Coming from a confusing, cold, and often cruel childhood – I tend to look at new people like this:

 

Terminator Vision

Emphasis on “Defense Systems Set”

Once I’m done scanning, I’ll either engage them in conversation or politely fade into the nearest wall never to be seen again. Like the Terminator, I quickly collect all the facts, intuition, and observations then make a determination.  In regard to that small group in my circle of friends I often say, “my life is by invitation only.”  What I mean is – “If I let you into my world, you have passed a screening that would make the Department of Defense’s top security clearance seem like a elementary school hall pass.”

My fear of pain, and people, has allowed me to put most human beings behind a wall of ideas, things, and systems. I noticed this one day when I was listening to a dharma talk on impermanence. We were supposed to be reflecting on how we know about impermanence from our experiences. After a few moments of silence the teacher listed all the people he had lost in his life, including his parents. I was thinking, “I’ve been through 4 laptops in 6 years.”

So impermanent

So impermanent….

Why?  Because it would hurt too much to think of the people I have lost – to death, to disagreement, or just the inability to stay connected. So – the open-hearted me had to stop, recall, feel the loss and then the warmth of gratitude those folks had been in my life in the first place. In order to open my heart, I now try to do the following things:

  1. Look at the person, not the perception. Instead of scanning people for anything (clothing, hair style, political party bumper stickers, accents, big crosses or small pearls around their necks) that might indicate they already disapprove of me, I just try to listen to them. Just as cats always head straight for the one person in the room who doesn’t like cats – people have always flocked to me with their stories. Instead of disinterested listening or suspicious cataloguing, I ask open questions and feel compassion for their victories or defeats. Instead of a collection of dangers or perks – I’m seeing them for who they are.
  1. Look at the person, not the idea. This has helped a lot during our tense political American Spring. I have a diversity of people in my life (confession: for someone who hates people – I adore and am delighted to share space with lots of very different people who I love). Among my friends are several ardent Donald Trump supporters. It would be so easy to argue, chide, or reject the memes they put on facebook. With an open heart I see – these folks aren’t ideas – they are people. They just want to be safe. They want to be hopeful. They want to be heard. I’m not going to vote the same as they do and I reject almost everything Donal Trump stands for,  but I am going to see their value as people, as friends, as beings – when we go to the polls, and beyond.
  1. Look at the person, not the problem/puzzle they carry. Long before I took refuge vows I was a recovering “fixer” and puzzle solver (Yes – I was that kid in high school who would take someone’s rubik cube, solve it, and put it back in his locker). I rarely let someone get the whole story out before I offered advice, insight, prayers or promises.  I have learned, over time, to listen and not “fix” overtly. In my head, however, is a rocky rushing river of “She just needs to,” “If only he would,” and “Why don’t people just…”  Having an open heart means putting the person first, and letting the puzzle wait until someone asks me to help. Even then,  I try to help people see they already know the answer and provide support and encouragement instead of prescriptions and control.
rubiks-cube-world-record

Helpful Hint: Just like life – you line up the colors with the center square, not the sides.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of my open heart – much like a flat rock skipping across a lake touching down momentarily then flying off to places unknown. It has been challenging, frightening, illuminating and satisfying.  The big fears – that I would be hurt, that I would look silly, that I would lose the few people I’ve let in – have not happened. The big joys – that I would be butterfly free with no doubts or issues floating on white clouds of relationships  – have not happened either.  I’m not depressed or elated, idiotic or wise, boundless or captive. I’m just me.  That’s the best part of all.

 

 

Photo Credits:
  • Top image from Tinybuddha.com
  • Terminator pic (c) 1984 20th Century Fox
  • Laptop/Rubik’s cube – Public Use photos.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Buddha Claus(e)

1110151709aI’ve been asked several times in the last few weeks, “Now that you’re a Buddhist are you going to have Christmas?”  I love discussions about spirit, meaning, and faith (so if you want to have one – hit me up!) but I have found this question a little odd.  It’s like asking someone, “Now that you’re vegan are you going to have Thanksgiving?”  Of course they are – it just won’t be turkey based.  Of course I’m having Christmas! The center of my holiday won’t be the birth of Christ but the meaning of Christ, and the Miracle of Lights, and the guidance of Kwanzaa, and the silly grievances of Festivus will all be with me.  I’m going to have the three things this season encompasses best – light, magic, and peace. Plus fudge. I plan to have lots of fudge.

Fudge can deck my halls any day!

Fudge can deck my halls any day!

A Season of Light

Light, like seasons, doesn’t need to have a reason, or even permission, to shine. No one owns light (sorry, Dominion Power). Light is precious and life-giving. It maintains its own being. You can shutter out the light, but the sun isn’t going away. Light is something celebrated in almost every spiritual tradition. The Menorah represents the miracle of light, the star over Bethlehem – the arrival of light, Kwanzaa the representation of the qualities of light. My non-religious friends put candles in the window when someone is out in a storm as a sign of hope that the person will find their way home. Light guides, light heals, light inspires, light saves.

In Buddhism, we believe the light is not an external thing, simply shining around us, but an internal flame – glowing within us. We meditate and connect with the light inside that shows us the reality of the present moment and our place in it. What better time than the darkest season to celebrate the fact that even when I’m in darkness, there is a light in there somewhere.

There's even a light over at the Frankenstein place. (c) 1975, 20th Century Fox

There’s even a light over at the Frankenstein place.
(c) 1975, 20th Century Fox

A Season of Magic

One of the core messages of Shambhala Buddhism (the lineage Cathy and I have taken refuge vows in) is that “there is magic in every moment.”  Nowhere is that more evident than in the Christmas season.

  • The way the whole world smells like gingerbread and spiced apple cinnamon is magic.
  • The desire to give as a way of showing love to others is magic.
  • The food your mom makes because your grandma made it because her grandma brought the recipe over from the Old Country is time travel (hence, magic).
  • The colors, lights, and music everywhere you turn is magic. (For you people who complain about Christmas music in stores coming too early – can’t you just admit hearing that first chorus of “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” is a lot more magical than yet another replay of Hall and Oates, “Your Kiss is on my List.”)
Okay - so that hair is magic.  (c)1980, RCA Records

Okay – so that hair is magic.
(c)1980, RCA Records

A Season of Peace

Above all, this season is one of the few times we vocalize our desire for, and recognition of, peace. As a Buddhist, one of my main desires is remember we are all connected to one another and for all of us to be liberated from the suffering our world, each of us needs to be able to visualize and desire peace.

As more and more people seem to be finding ways to use the holiday season in its many incarnations as a way to divide us, I find this holiday to have great potential for us to remember we are in this together.

Mmmm..diversity - so sweet.

Mmmm… diversity – so sweet.

The truth is – seasons don’t need reasons. They come as they are with their unique weather patterns, foods, and frolic. They don’t come with rules, requirements, shame or expectations. They just show up. We, humans, are the ones who need reasons. It may just be the seasons’ view that we are welcome to any reason we can find. SO:

To my Christian friends for whom Jesus is the only reason: I hope you have an abundance of Jesus is your world this Christmas. May it be full of grace, mercy, sacrifice, and love.

To my Jewish friends who celebrate the festival of lights: I wish you glorious miracles and as many of those chocolate coins as you can handle.

To my friends who celebrate every other tradition I don’t know or understand well – I wish all the good things that come with them – and I wish you would teach me about them.

To my atheist/agnostic/apathetic friends who just want to have a party, eat good food, and sing loudly – Dude – What time should I show up? What can I bring? Do you have enough Chex Mix?

To my Buddhist friends and dear Sanghas –  both the Open Heart Sangha and The Buddha Center (second life) – metta, love, and kindness – You’ll see me sitting with you. I’ll be the one in the Santa hat.

“And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to All, and to ALL a good night.”


The Boomerang Effect: Prison Rape Jokes Harm The Victim not the Perp.

Time-to-StopSo, have you heard the one about the guy who sold foot-long sandwiches going to prison? Of course you have. Everyone has. At least 3,000 times. Since the news broke about Jared Fogle’s arrest for child pornography and sex with minors I have yet to see a story that didn’t have, “He’s gonna get his foot-long…” (or some variation thereof) in the comments section (and sometimes in the story itself).

Stop it. Just stop. It’s not funny. You’re not funny. And what’s worse – you’re hurting the very person you claim to be standing up for – the victim of rape or abuse. Jokes and “I hope he gets what he deserves” kinds of comments don’t make you witty, insightful, outraged or even righteous in that Old Testament “eye for an eye” kind of way. It just makes you someone who is  either fixated in the adolescent world of fart jokes and Dick’s Last Resort or who doesn’t think about what you say for more than 3 seconds. Either way – grow up, and wise up.

Rape is Never Okay

Let’s just be clear:

  • It is not okay for a child to be raped.
  • It is not okay for a college student to be raped.
  • It is not okay for a spouse to be raped.
  • It is not okay for strangers to be raped.
  • It is not okay for police officers, prison guards, or judges to be raped.
  • It is not okay for the homeless, the helpless, or prisoners to be raped.

When you suggest otherwise – when you rationalize your bad humor or horrible human rights thinking with, “well, that person should get what he/she gave others– it’s justice. Let the perp see how it feels.” What you are really saying is rape is okay.

  1. Rape is okay if it teaches you something. The message is that violating someone’s body in the most foul way can actually do them some good because they will now have empathy with their victims or at least feel what the victim felt. That’s idiotic. You aren’t creating solidarity with victims. You are just creating another victim. Many people are in prison because they were child victims who were already “taught by rape.”
  2. Rape is an acceptable form of punishment. Rape hurts – the body, the mind and the soul.To suggest rape is some kind acceptable way to punish anyone – even a rapist – is to not only advocate cruel and unusual punishment, but to reinforce the idea that authority (either by badge or by mob or by strength) has the right to inflict this on another human being. No one has that right. Ever.
  3. There are people who deserved to be raped. For the victims of sexual assault this is the worst message you could possibly be sending. Victims already question themselves and blame themselves for what happened to them. Unfair and untrue, their wounded minds bombard them with statements like:
  • “I shouldn’t have been wearing that.”
  • “I shouldn’t have gone to that party.”
  • “I shouldn’t have argued with him about the credit card.”
  • “I shouldn’t have stayed home from school sick.”
  • “I shouldn’t have let him give me that ice cream.”
  • “I shouldn’t have sent that Snapchat.”
  • “I shouldn’t have said, ‘no.’”

At the deep bottom of those questions is this one sick statement over and over – “I deserved to be raped.”

So – along comes Internet Iggy with his dumb joke about prisoners “deserving” to be raped and all it does is give more fuel to the victim’s already raging internal fire. Guess what? You got 30 likes on your funny comment and re-victimized a person struggling with recovery. Bravo.

Learn before you burn

Before you jump on the jokester express and send a survivor of rape back into the flames for a reminder of their brutal experience, take a moment to learn to something.

  1. “Eye for an Eye” – even in its biblical glory – did not mean people got to poke out each other’s eyes. Jewish laws stated that you must “compensate” someone if you take something. So – if you poked out someone’s eye – you have to, in some way, repay that debt. A perpetrator being raped doesn’t give anything back to the victim but more regret.
  2. Your frustration is showing – A big part of the comment has to do with America’s continuing dysfunctional relationship with the justice/prison system. We want people who rape others to be punished and we are never satisfied that sitting in a jail cell for five years, or five hundred years, is enough.
    1. It isn’t. There isn’t enough time in the world to make up for rape. Prison time is a case of “we do the best we can with time – one of the only tools we have.”
    2. Prisons are not lush. Much of public frustration is the TV/Movie fed notion prisons are some kind of weird country club where inmates sleep all day, have cable TV and get free everything. That’s a huge myth. As a pastoral care provider and HIV/AIDS tester I have been many jails and prisons. They aren’t lush. They aren’t comfy. Everything costs. Some prices are higher than others.
  3. Real change happens in policy making, not pain. You don’t like the way the system we have works in terms of rape, prison, and punishment? Fix it – by voting (in those small local prison board and mid-term elections you have to leave your house for), by advocating for real justice, by learning about what the judges you elect believe, and by being active in state politics. That’s how things get changed.
  4. Jabbing at the perp doesn’t do shit for the victim. Remember those people? The ones who got hurt? They don’t need you out there laughing it up or saber rattling about the rapist (who seems to be getting all the attention). They need you:

To listen to them.

To hold their hands.

To encourage them to seek help.

To remind them you still see them as the vibrant wonderful people they are, not just “rape victim.”

To help them journey from victim to survivor.

To help them journey from survivor to thriver.

To advocate real justice.

To love them and be loved by them.

I realize this personal blog isn’t going to challenge the big wide world of the comment section any more than people discovering the Kardashians have no viable talent is going to keep them from being written about online every day forever. But, like all people of good mind and conscience, I hope. And I hope it can make you think about messaging, and at least stop saying or stop “liking” or “forever reblogging” this painful boomerang.

If you read this all the way through – you are probably already in the category of “I don’t say that.” or even “I don’t say that, anymore.”  In that case – teach it to someone who still does.


Leaving Christianity: An Exit Interview

interviewTypically, when someone leaves a large corporation they are given a form or interview to explain why they chose to go somewhere else. Corporate big-wigs long ago realized that people staying with the company aren’t as likely to be open about the reality of what’s happening. The view from someone who no longer has a reason to hide their feelings is valuable to help those who remain. In a way, it is a last gift of the departing to the co-workers staying on the job. I hope my Christian friends see the heart I have for them and their road, even as I leave with some clear observations.

I toyed with this post for months – because I didn’t feel like I had anything to say anyone would care about and it can be seen as a rant. Okay, some of it is a rant. Pretty much, the response of Christian leaders and friends once you turn in your gold cross lapel pin is – “well, that’s just sour grapes” or “that’s your experience – OUR church isn’t like that.” So, why bother? Besides, I was taught it is rude to point out what you don’t like at a buffet (and Christianity is definitely a buffet) – just take what you want and sit down.

I decided to write after some good and heart-felt conversations with friends after I announced I was taking refuge (formally declaring myself a Buddhist) a few weeks ago. Many have suggested it was the Christian wailing and gnashing of teeth over gay marriage, or that vomit-inducing fake post about the red on the Confederate flag being the “blood of Christ” (REALLY?!), or just a bad experience with a church here in Virginia. None of that is true (in fact, the last Christian church I was in – The Gayton Kirk – was probably the best church I could have ever been in – except, I was already walking away from Christianity by the time I got there.). I’d been studying dharma, meditating and journeying for a few years now. It wasn’t a new decision – or even really a decision. I can’t name the day I said, “I’m not a Christian anymore.” I just looked around and began to slowly notice, I was somewhere else. But, there were things that cut the brush and made a path that led away more clear. This post is about those things.

In the end – it wasn’t the bigotry, the battles or the building fund that cut the trail leading me to a new place. It was all the fear.  So – the Exit Interview. It’s not about “You” – the individual Christian, or “You” a certain church, or “You” a certain denomination, political bend (I find very little difference between the vocal/rigid conservative right and the silent/ineffective liberal left), or specific type of belief.. It’s “You” – Christianity – the whole uniquely American/Western shebang. It’s not personal – and yet, it is.

You are afraid to follow Christ.

As I’ve told many in the last few weeks, there is a person that Jesus taught people to be – and I want to be that person. But Christianity has failed to follow those instructions and I am not able to become or awaken to that person within the present environment. I have been very clear, though. I did not leave because Christianity was failing me. I left because I was failing to be me within it.

Western Christianity seems to have given up following the words and teachings of Jesus and swapped it out for the extreme worship and adoration of him. Whether he is on the cover of Time, headlining a movie, or appearing the chorus of country song – Jesus is an object of love and pure devotion.

Jesus cover

The problem is, that wasn’t why he came. While we’ve been busy making him some sort of First Century rock star – the poor have been hungry, the prisoners abused, the sick denied medical insurance, and Samaritans of all kinds left on the side of the road to die. Following Jesus is different than worshiping him. It’s work, and it sometimes means being mobile, generous and uncomfortable. It means:

  • Instead of crying tears at a revival because we are overcome by His glory – we are crying tears in the street because we mourn the dead killed because of their race, their social status or their mental health.
  • Instead of moralizing and complaining about the working single mother who gets $76 a month per kid to feed them, it means opening your wallet and giving her $24 more so she has $100 – and maybe ensuring she gets some health care and the right to birth control, too. (“If someone makes you walk with him one mile – walk with him two”).
  • Instead of donating to wealthy politicians (of either party) and filling church parking lots with signs and bumper stickers for the best candidate to create economic growth on the backs of the impoverished or at the expense of the earth – it means calling out the rich and being a voice for equality, dignity, and loving action on behalf of leaders and the community.
  • It means stop expecting other people to “deserve” things/love/respect – feed them anyway.

Let’s face it – we all love John the Baptist for calling out the powerful on hypocrisy in the streets and paying with his head – but how many of us are really willing to be him? Which leads me to:

 You are afraid to be Different

The bible tells us over and over that Christians are not supposed to be like the rest of the world. We are told to be “Strangers in a strange land” – “In the world but not of the world” – “Give Caesar his and Give God his.” But that isn’t how we see it in these days. Instead of living our beliefs even if they don’t fit the world – Christianity has decided to change to world to fit its beliefs. The fake “persecution complex” had gotten out of hand. A store saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t hurting you and the manager isn’t going to storm into your house and say “Kiss this Pagan Yule Log or you can’t have 30% off!” If other people in the world have “holidays” and you have Christmas – freaking have Christmas! Reason your season until your manger overflows with kneeling sheep and really clean shepherds. But don’t try to force the whole country to do it with you. Christianity was designed to be a city on a hill – a light – not a police force.

fight for fiath

That goes for marriage, school prayer and every other Christian trope currently trying to be legislated into law. Your kids can’t lead the math class in a prayer to Jesus? So what! Is school the only place your kid can pray? Give your kids a home filled with prayer, and a life filled with actions of goodness and heart. It’s not the job of schools to accommodate YOU. It’s your job to keep your faith even when others don’t. Jesus talked about praying in a closet – not at a chalkboard. There are places all over the world where Christians are murdered. That’s persecution. The inability to shop at Penny’s cause they ran an ad with a gay couple is not.

We weren’t designed to be a “Christian nation,” we aren’t one, and we aren’t going to be one. Christianity should be something you choose because you want to be a Christian, not because the majority population pressures you into it or makes it illegal for you to act in ways that “aren’t biblical” (like any two Christians can even agree on what that is).  Don’t try to make the world a nice place for your ideas. Keep them, walk them, and strive for them in a world where you may be different from others – because that is the point! (note: People in the Judeo part of the Judeo-Christian tradition have lived this way forever – and still they thrive.).

You are afraid of your own God.

If Pentecost were to happen in most Christian churches today, the Holy Spirit would have to try to time it between Upward Basketball and the taize worship service, get a permit from the Buildings and Grounds committee, and submit a plan for who would clean up the sanctuary when it was over. Church’s cling to order as a form of oxygen, instead of having a system that is strong enough to hold and flexible enough to withstand the spontaneity and creativity of a powerful God. Christianity is shackled by the ego, vision, budget, and polity of leaders and lay people rather than being freed by the willingness to follow what Jesus said.

You’re afraid God will let the church die. I won’t even start on the number of blogs and church seminars hysterical about the death, change, challenge of the modern church. Death is change. The church’s old model – huge buildings, full time pastoral staff who makes a living wage just from ministry, and programs, programs, programs simply isn’t working any more. Yet – with scholars in almost every denomination heralding this truth as the dawn of a new form of Christianity – lighter, relational, mobile and powerful in action and message – the mainline church is still functioning with 16 committees (for a 200 active member congregation) and claiming to be on the fringe because of that coffee shop/bar/mall/bookstore worship it now offers. Here’s the thing: Holding the same old bible study with the same old ideas in Starbucks isn’t innovation – it’s relocation.

starbucks

The “wrath of God” has become a frequent Christian chorus. Gay marriage? “Let us pray this country doesn’t suffer the wrath of God.” Tornado? “God is letting us know God is unhappy with..,” Some Hobby Lobby worker needs birth control to regulate her hormones, “That will make God unhappy.” This “fear of the Lord” has nothing to do with the respect the Bible commands. I have respect for a lot of people, but I’m not afraid they will slap me with a plague, tornado or fire roasted chili just for doing something uniquely human. I am starting to think forgiveness plays such a key role in Christianity because there’s so much fear of God that we have to keep being assured we’re not heading for a smack-down. The belief in dualism – that we are somehow separate from God and require blood, prayer and methods to be acceptable or embraced is not something I can support.

A few years ago I left the Christian church and began a journey of meditation and study with a focus on rest, mental health, creativity and freedom from fear. I walked until I was in a field that expressed compassion, embraced life and death without fear, where mistakes happen and it’s okay, where reality is the focus, and where those things the words of Jesus taught me were actually being put into personal practice – kindness, mourning, joy, generosity, effort and embracing the basic goodness in myself and others. When I heard my meditation teacher say, “Buddhism is the path of being human.” I knew the name of the road I was on.

This wasn’t easy. It can be hard, and sometimes heartbreaking, to strip off long-held ideas and habits. I have grieved certain changes, and celebrated much baggage released. I cherish the friends I’ve made, the memories I’ve decided to keep, and the things I learned.

There is a story in the bible of the Magi who find the baby Jesus and are supposed to go tell Herod where he is. Realizing that funny thing they smelled on Herod was the stench of his fear, they were warned in a dream to go home by another way.   That’s what I’m doing. So pray for me, and I will send my love to you. Let’s be different, together.


One Shade of Gold: The Fetishization of Wealth

The movie, the cruelty, the helpless love given by sacrificing your body and dignity, the beatings, the tears, the sin, the surprises, the complex emotions and the unavoidable eroticism of pain… No, I’m not talking about “The Passion of The Christ” – but about the theater version of the best selling “50 Shades of Grey” received with an equal amount of zeal and fervor.

If I wore a business suit, people would say this was hot.

If I wore a business suit, people would say this was hot.

I’m not concerned with judging whether the book or movie was bad or good, harmless or sin. That’s not my business and there’s no critical analysis I can give that hasn’t already been printed. What really concerns me – the thing I want to make clear – is that we as a culture need to stop seeing without seeing. What I want to show you (which I can fortunately do with my clothes on) is the real reason it successful and what that says about us. Note: Before you start asserting YOU didn’t read/watched it – the sales figures indicate A LOT of people did – so it doesn’t matter – the herd has spoken.  

Money Power

The draw to 50 Shades isn’t the writing (reviewed as horrid), the story (reviewed as ridiculous), or the nudity (reviewed as <…you know…>). Despite what many churches are preaching – it isn’t even because it is taboo or represents something missing in our lives. Our societal impulse hasn’t been to flock to this because of what it says about sex, love or mystery. People respond to what it says about money – and that fetishization of wealth is the last thing this country (USA) needs right now. As many before me have pointed out: 50shadescriminalmids In a country with the economic disparity of the United States, where many struggle with working poverty, lifting up the adulation of the wealthy is calloused at best. We don’t need Wall Street to tell us the rich have the right to do anything they want. We learn it through media, celebrity culture, and a consumer driven world. Think about it: The wealthy can afford organic food, they can fly in comfort and get on the plane first, they can see the doctor of their choice and afford their medication. As a former HIV/AIDS worker – I can tell you first hand – the difference between thriving, surviving, and dying for those with HIV is money. The rich get better meds, better care, better odds. At a time when we should be questioning that – we are stampeding to theaters to celebrate it. When a poor man beats his girlfriend and plays emotional games to create her consent – we call it “abuse.” When it rich man does it – well – it’s “erotic fantasy.”  

Fear Driven: It is, in fact, our helplessness to financial disparity that makes wealth fetish possible (for an example of wealth fetish – go to Amazon and type “billionaire” in the search line. Pages of billionaire books make up their own highly successful subgenre of Romance). Human beings tend to revere what they desire based on what they fear. Ancient cultures were terribly susceptible to the ravages of the weather. While this harsh winter of 2015 has frustrated many of us – it would have killed a village centuries ago. The fear and dependence on nature led to a host of religions lifting up “nature gods” – beings who were powerfully able to control that which humans couldn’t. Those gods were sometimes beautiful, sometimes loathsome – but they worshipped them. Because it made them feel safe.

Throughout history war and plagues would periodically devastate societies. What became popular almost every time that happened? Vampire legends. Vampires should be gross and villainous – but every major facet of history that involved a precarious fear or loss of life – vampire stories, first oral, then written, then movies – filled public imagination. Vampires (even the nasty un-sexy ones like Nosferatu) have something we don’t. They rise from the dead. They are (with notable exception) immortal. Fear of death creates a lust for life. It is no accident that True Blood (published the year of (9/11) and Twilight (published as young adult literature in the age of school shootings, teen suicides and drug deaths) are so popular and romantic. Vampires almost always beat the odds. Who wouldn’t want that?

Now, after a recession that took homes from our neighbors, and during a time when our media reminds us nightly about our growing deficit, the shaky stability of the dollar and the terrible gap between the rich and the poor, the billionaire with a stable, unshakeable wealth is our new legend, our new god. Why else would the wealthy majority in Congress (backed by a conservative Christian base) which has shown its willingness to have a say about our birth control, our sex lives, and who can marry – suddenly be disinterested in the morality of its citizens? Legislators are challenging the AP History exam which questions racial and economic justice, but letting erotica with slippery consent issues flow unregulated through the land. It isn’t because it suddenly decided censorship was wrong – but because we are being taught to lift up, revere, and lust for the love of power, and the power of money. With 50 Shades, we say we are being entertained – but most of us are being “trained.”

That's not your working class Daddy's tie.

That’s not your working class Daddy’s tie.

So what to do? Am I calling censorship? Heavens no! That is the way of ignorance. Free expression is the only hope of our world. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if you love 50 Shades or hate it. If you embrace it or ignore it. Watch it, live it, laugh at it – whatever. But what I want you to do – is be aware of what it’s really trying to sell you.

It was very easy to laugh at the idealistic, disorganized youth of Occupy Wall Street who raged against corporate culture while drinking Starbucks and tapping on an iPad. However, be aware when you are posting articles about the outrageous privileges of the 1% and the horror of economic disparity – that wealth fetish may be as near as the movie ticket in your pocket.


The Magical Meadow of Shut Up

If you read the first draft of anything I’ve written, it becomes painfully clear I write like I speak. Fortunately, I speak well (thanks, speech coaches). More fortunately, I can always re-write (thanks, Microsoft Word). Speaking out has been part of my life since I was in 9th grade and Mrs. Villalba got tired of listening to me argue that the poison used in Romeo and Juliet was actually a symbol of the poisonous lack of forgiveness which caused the family feud (a position I still believe).  She took me (literally took my hand and walked me) to the debate coach and to whom she said, “Here’s the one for you.”

The debate coach when I said I had to get my parent's permission to join the team.

The debate coach when I said my mother didn’t want me to join the team.

Years of debates, presentations, sermons, and stories later – I’m still talking. My adult life has been a fantastical journey in the jungle of other people’s communication using my sword/tongue to cut away the thorns of academic obfuscation, the dead leaves of prejudice, the bitter dry soil of self-righteous, pretentious leaders and the comment section weevils eating the truth with made-up facts. I have slayed dragons, lost battles and laid down my weapons at the feet of “agree to disagree.” In short, I was exhausted.

Then one day, I came to a magical oasis with crystal springs of refreshing clarity, hammocks rocked gently in the breeze between many viewpoints, and lush gardens of fragrant discourse. I had reached the Meadow of Shut Up. At first I was afraid. What would I do if I wasn’t talking? Wouldn’t I cease to exist if I didn’t immediately add my voice to the fray? In the 24 hour-always-on news cycle, if I waited to form an intelligent, considered opinion – the topic would be over by the time I was ready to speak! The Meadow of Shut Up was inviting and I was so tired, I decided to give it a try.  There are some wonderful reasons to be quiet:

 It makes you feel.

Listening to what others have to say without thinking of what you want to say in response is one of the bravest, most frightening things you can do. Because if you aren’t busy measuring their thoughts on the scale of right/wrong or looking for the weak link to break into their logic, you will experience actual feelings about what they are saying. The topic may make you sad. The way they say it may make you angry, or happy. The fact you are having the discussion at all may elate you, or hurt your feelings.

I know, I know…feelings? Sounds horrible. But once they start – even the unpleasant ones – you begin to change the way you see things and things begin to change the way you see. It’s worth it. I promise.

feelings

It makes you think.

Most people like to think they think a lot. But the truth is – thinking isn’t the act of pondering something in your head while constantly re-confirming your own opinion. Thinking is taking in NEW data and constructing ideas around it, leaving room for change when more, confirming or denying data comes into view. Listening to someone else’s experience or ideas gives you so many more building blocks for the castles of thought you live in.

I know, I know…that’s so much effort. But the way you can understand, re-imagine, create and infuse your life with the world around you is wondrous.

mental-gymnastics-e1367843963622

This is your brain when you shut up and listen.

 It connects you.

Buddhist believe that we have all the wisdom and knowledge already inside of us. Thus when we encounter or hear something outside of us, the inner knowledge connects to its outer counter-part. That’s how we have those “ah-ha!” moments where we hear something new but we know instantly it is the truth – or our truth – as the case may be. That is part of the basis of Namaste – the divine in me honors the divine in you. We are connected. When you listen to others you find more things you both know – even if you are approaching it from different angles.

diversity

I can’t say I spend loads of time in the Meadow of Shut Up. It is still somewhat new and a little odd-feeling to me. But my rest here – listening to others, reading news from international perspectives, touching my own heart – before rejoining the speaking world has benefited me a great deal.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you will join me – and before we call out, speak truth, dialogue justice and cry havoc – we can all shut up, together.


525,600 Minutes, But What’s the Word Count?

If you ask ten people what the musical “Rent” is about, you’ll get fifteen answers. It’s about artists, La Boehme, struggling, succeeding, love, AIDS, death, life, giving up, trying again, moving in, moving out, and Idina Menzel before she sang “Let it Go” – but mostly, it’s about a year – and the many ways we can measure it. Here’s a flashback (since the title made you start singing the song anyway):

Minutes may be the way we measure time, but each of us has our own way to measure life. Some measure through the growth chart of their children (then grandchildren) scratched on a wall, others measure it in billable hours. Music lovers remember the year with songs (Shake it off!) and readers mark life with the New York Times Bestseller List (Gone Girl). T.S. Eliot famously measured his life in coffee spoons.

That's a lot of life!

That’s a lot of life!

I measure my year, in fact – my life – in words.  Happy words, holy words, healing words, hopeful words. When I die, I want a memorial that looks like an old school McDonald’s sign – only with a writing quill instead of a heart-clogging M, and the tagline: “Over 1 million words said.”   In my world there is the best word, the right word, and the first word I come up with. I am frequently guilty of accidentally blurting the latter before the former can be found. Sorry about that.

As we pack up 2014 and set up 2015 (Maybe that’s why I don’t like New Year’s very much – it’s a lot like moving) – let’s invest in a few good words.

 Courage – Jump, both feet, into the things that scare you the most. Take apart the roadblocks in your life – even if it requires the same care as defusing a bomb. Stand up to the things that bully our world – be they people, systems, powers or simply stupid thoughts.

 Justice – Defend the innocent, find the guilty accountable, uphold the rights and responsibilities of citizens, law enforcement, banks, leaders, followers and lovers. Stop howling for blood, start working for good.

 Peace – Start with yourself. Start with your heart. Peace isn’t a thing we achieve, like a diploma. It is way that we live, that we see, that we breathe. Take peace out of the “pretty concept” aisle of your internal grocery store and place it in the hardware section – it’s a tool. Own it. Use it. Maintain it. Daily.

 Hope – Have hope that is active, not a dream.  When you plant a seed in the ground, you can’t dig it up every day to see if it’s growing. You must acknowledge it is currently covered in dirt and hope someday it will grow. You do things – water, nutrients, sunlight – because those are part of hope, too. In time, it will sprout. Don’t just look our dirt encrusted world and shrug. Do the work of hope – water it with generosity, nurture it with wisdom, shine light on what needs to change, and transform it.

 Love – Do it.

What is 2015 going to be about?  It’s about artists, La Boehme, struggling, succeeding, love, AIDS, death, life, giving up, trying again, moving in, moving out, and Idina Menzel singing “Let it Go”  (sorry about that, too).  It’s about a year. And a chance for more seasons of love.

Leave the mistakes, the grudges, the late night rallies, the fails, and the past in 2014. Take with you the love, the lessons, and the words.


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