Love and Cents: A Call for Introspection

I just needed copy paper. That’s all. I wasn’t looking for wisdom, seeking a path, or desiring to be part of a disgruntled community contemplating mob violence. I just needed copy paper. But, every writer can tell you a blank page is always the beginning of something.

This is how the world ends.

This is how the world ends.

Target was reasonably empty on this serene Monday afternoon, so they had two checkout clerks working. Both lines had 3 to 4 people waiting. In my line there was a woman who didn’t have children with her but the kid’s cereal (Count Chocula!), juice boxes, and snack packs indicated she had a some somewhere; a retired couple purchasing Christmas wrap for far away loved ones, me (paper, ink, Pepsi), and a college-aged young woman and her mother with a cart full of “guess who got a new apartment.”

Then a Balrog was released from the depths of the Customer Service Desk who began breathing fire across the front end in an unending rage. Well, okay – not really – but it seemed like that.

I Want My Discount!

I Want My Discount!

Cereal Woman was holding up the line. At first we just thought she’d mistaken her Smartphone for some kind of emergency flare. Turns out, she had given the phone to the clerk to scan because she had a coupon for 20% off of her cereal  – regularly $2.89 on sale for $2.50 (the fact I know that tells you just how loud this conversation was). She was complaining and shouting to see a manager because the Target computer gave her 50 cents off instead of 58 cents. She was being shorted 8 cents.

8 cents

8 cents

She argued and waved her phone, reading loudly (and repeatedly) that the coupon says it is good for 20% OFF THE REGULARLY PRICED CEREAL NOT THE SALE PRICE. Our line backed up, they pulled a clerk from the floor to open a new aisle, which new people piled into, leaving the four of us stuck in place or at the back of the line

After a full 5 minute argument, the manager decided the best thing to do in pursuit of world peace was to remove the cereal, re-scan it, hand enter the discount, etc. So we all waited some more while she found the cereal in her bags and the befuddled clerk attempted to correct the situation. Cereal Woman turned to the older lady who was next in line and said in jet plane landing volume, “Sorry about this. But I love my family and I will fight for every penny.”

I watched the older man dig in his pocket. I would have given anything for him to hand her a dime and say, “Here you go, move along.” Standing ovation – I guarantee. Alas, not to be.

She finally pulled her cart away from the register, and things started flowing. While the retired couple watched their Frosty papers get scanned, Cereal mom wheeled over to the snack bar, bought a personal pan pizza and a coke. “You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” the girl behind me sneered to her mother with a voice made equally of acid, judgment, and Altoids.

Minty Righteousness

                   Minty Righteousness

I paid for my paper, picked up my “salad of the day” (Caprese kale) and came back to the office consumed and distracted by the experience. How am I supposed to write a light romantic murder mystery when all I can think about is the fleeting meaning of 8 cents.

Now, before you get all mommy-bloggy, little-things-add-up, #itstheprinciple on me – hear me out. I don’t care about the time she cost us, I don’t care that she thought she was “saving money” by buying the most expensive, least nutritional foods ever, and I DO NOT CARE that she had a pizza for lunch. Everybody has the right to indulge. But her choices show us this was not really about money

What I care about – what is most on my mind – is that she thinks fighting for 8 cents is somehow evidence of her love, and she needed to affirm its value. She didn’t just reveal her vocal range, she showed us desperate need so many carry inside.

This wasn’t about greed, power, or the adult bullying that unfortunately happens to retail clerks every day – this was about need. The need to prove (to herself, most likely) that she loved her family and the mistaken belief that money (any amount) was a way to do it.

Cereal Woman is not alone. We are bounding into a season famous for “things as love” (I sprung for iPhones again this year), for “time spent on things as love” (I spent 4 hours in line for that flat screen for Bobby), for conflict as love (That guy tried to get the last Non-Stop Chattering Elmo, but I beat him to it), and for “manipulation as love” (You can take the kids to their OTHER grandma for Easter. I want my babies home for Christmas. Papaw has a cough. This could be his last year, you know…).

It is time to reflect on the simple, beautiful truth that only love is love.

We love. We love our spouses, kids, parents, friends, pets – we love. In a culture so full of fear and marketing we have lost the ability to be confident in our love and let it be enough. Love is supposed to be lived. It doesn’t need to be packaged, and it doesn’t need to be proven. It just needs to be there.

As you meditate, pray, work, laugh or just think about the beings in your life that you love so well – take a moment to breathe deep, relax, and just feel good. Feel your love for them surround you, giving you priceless, thing-less, timeless, peace.

Sit with your love. Walk with it. Live in it.  If you find the center of your love and trust it over the pressures, ads, voices and Instagram likes – you’ll never need to “prove” it again.

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The Brides Wore Dog Hair: A Shocking Look at a Wedding between Two Women

I used to say I knew how the biblical Jacob felt – working 14 years to marry the love of his life, Rachel.  The truth is – he got to marry Rachel after seven, then work the last seven. So, I’ve waited longer. On October 21, 2014 – on the 14th anniversary of our original spiritual wedding, and 15 years after we started dating, my wife and I were legally married in Richmond, Virginia.

We didn’t have to wait because of some archaic law about the oldest daughter marrying first, or because one of our fathers was a con man trying to squeeze more work out of a drifter. We had to wait because a very loud group of biblical literalists led this country to believe that if two women married each other:

  1. Heterosexual marriage will spontaneously combust or lose all of its value.
  2. Moral society will crumble and fall.
  3. People will marry their pets, their furniture, or 12 people at a time.
  4. Children will become homosexual because it looks like so much fun.
  5. God will be unhappy and punish us (Earthquake? Collapsed economy? No McRib this year?)
There shall be no BBQ Sauce!

There shall be no BBQ Sauce!

If that happens, please know Cathy and I are truly sorry. We didn’t mean to ruin the world. We just wanted to see each other in the hospital, share insurance and social security benefits, file taxes without a hassle and get a family membership at the gym. We just wanted to be treated like everyone else, because we are ….well…just like everybody else.

In fact, we are probably not the best couple to be giving this expose on a same-sex wedding since being a lesbian couple is the least interesting thing about us.

  1. We just started a book on “mindful eating” to learn how to eat with gratitude. Thinking of all the people involved in supplying our food makes Cathy want to wash her hands repeatedly.
  2. Kellie is shopping a novel to literary agents and thinking of turning her rejection letters into origami cranes.
  3. Our dogs started a blog on Buddhist meditation and mindfulness called “The Beagle Way: Spiritual Bliss without Dogma.” They used to have a political blog but the current scene in Washington gave them indigestion.

So – you see – lesbianism – not that exciting.

But, just to show we are unlikely to trigger Marriage-pocalypse – here’s what it was like:

  • Cathy got up crazy early, fed the dogs, read her email, and checked her vows.
  • I slept until an hour before we had to get ready to leave, made tea, played on facebook.
  • We put the dogs in their crates before we got dressed. Still, the fur was with us. “I see the dogs are coming to the wedding,” Cathy said, looking at the splotches of beagle hair on my black pants. “As it should be,” I affirmed.
  • We were the last of the wedding party to get to church. No one was surprised.
  • We stood outside in a beautiful natural sanctuary before a Celtic cross where an awesome and dedicated minister officiated the service. The weather was perfect, not one lightning bolt to be seen – not even when my phone went off and the Batman theme started playing during the homily.
  • We prayed, thanking God for making us and this joining of hearts and home we call marriage.
  • We affirmed out intention to love and cherish one another.
  • We said vows. Cathy promised to weather the storms and dance through the joys of life with me. I promised to never part from her in life or death. We committed to be infinite together.
  • We exchanged rings
  • "This ring is a symbol, a token and pledge, of my undying faith, and eternal love."

    “This ring is a symbol, a token and pledge, of my undying faith, and eternal love.”

  • We listened to a beautiful homily about marriage, love, life and time. The pastor talked about our family of friends who uphold us, and the funny, faithful love that secures us.
  • We were pronounced wife and wife.
  • We kissed.
  • We took pictures.
  • We went to an after-wedding lunch given to us by my spiritual sister and dear friend.
  • We ate, we drank, we laughed, we cooed at our 3 week old nephew, and shared recipe tips on grilling mushrooms.
  • The manager of the restaurant came out and congratulated us. He told us with a beaming smile how happy we was for us and what a blessing that the world was changing. He sent out lemon cookies with 3 candles – one for our past, present and future.
  • 1021141421We hugged our friends and said we loved them.
  • We went home, let the dogs out and fed the cat.
  • Cathy read some nursing information and I attended a Buddhist seminar online.
  • The next morning, we got up and went to work.

I’m not sure which step started the world-ending part – but when we got home from work the next day – it looked like all of our neighbors were still married. So far.

Turns out, we aren’t re-defining marriage at all. We are just living it. Day by day, step by step. We are doing the walk (not just the talk) of love. We aren’t perfect, but we are perfectly ready to keep trying. What a world it would be if all people, all religions, all laws could do the same.


NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Better

Emails are flying, ideas are churning, and thought bunnies are perking up their ears, It is almost time for National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – to get underway.  A project to help writers finish a 50,000 word “novel” in one month, NaNoWriMo has a dual reputation. It’s a motivating push to glory for hobbyists and new writers. It’s an eye-rolling exercise in bad habits to most professional writers, editors and publishers. As professional in the craft who also wants to encourage new writers I find myself somewhere in the middle when it comes to NaNoWriMo. Instead of making judgments about the project as a whole, I decided to present all sides of the issue and let the writer decide. After all, nothing is all good or all bad.

Except for people who use "irregardless" - they are ALL bad.

Except for people who use “irregardless” – they are ALL bad.

The Good

There are a number of things NaNoWriMo gets right in its presentation and structure. Some of the best things about the project:

It motivates people to write.  Writing is something a lot of people want to do. It’s not always something those people actually get done.  By trumpeting the motto “Writers write,” NaNoWriMo gets the dreamers off of their clouds and puts the keyboard under their fingers.

It encourages people to drop their inner critic. One of the rules of NaNoWriMo is that there should be no editing during the month. You’re just supposed to sit down and write with abandon. Turning off the part of brain that gets lost in perfectionism and starts picking apart the work like a vulture with fresh road kill is essential for being a writer.

It helps procrastinators and distracted folks focus on the job at hand. Professional writers operate on the BIC principle – Butt In Chair. By keeping word requirements in front of participants and giving them both a start and finish line, NaNoWriMo helps folks overcome the “I’ll do it later” syndrome.

Butt goes here.

Butt goes here.

It affirms and celebrates. From twitter feeds to small groups that meet and encourage, NaNoWriMo is a month of non-stop writing cheer leading. Quotes, tips and support make the craft of writing a little less lonely.

The Bad

You’re not writing a novel. A novel is larger than 50,000 words (which is a novella at best). A novel is an organized story with flow and meaning. A novel is researched, written, edited, re-written, proofread and put in a format. What you have at the end of NaNoWriMo is a first draft.

It discourages good writing techniques. With the emphasis on consistency and word count, the project discourages or outlaws important things like research, character development, plot outlines, pacing or planning.  NaNoWriMo advises writers to just sit down, type and “follow the thought bunnies” to flesh out your story. Pre-writing is just as important to the novel as post-writing. When you are not consciously exploring literary elements (foreshadowing, symbolism, Deep POV, etc.) you are not creatively writing as much as stringing words together.

Word count is meaningless. By focusing on the number of words, you are taking your eyes off the important things – (telling a good story, creating connection with a character, pacing, literary elements) and watching the number of words go up. If all you’re doing is filling the word requirement you’re typing a document, not writing a story.

It puts you in the wrong place. At the end of November, if you get that far (sources estimate only 15 to 20 percent of people actually get a 50,000 word document done) – the project says you have “won” and you are “finished.”  However, you’ve just completed a first draft. In the world of real writing – you are nowhere near finished.  Writing is a craft professionals do every day. We don’t just stop at the end of a month and say “well, I’m done.”  Writers keep going.

Writing: It's like eternity, with spell check.

Writing: It’s like eternity, with spell check.

 The Better – Ways to Make the Experience Work

Use good writing habits anyway.   It’s okay to break the guidelines. Do some pre-writing to get ready for the start. Do a lot of editing, re-writing and post-work when you are done before you even think of calling it a novel.

Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds has the best way of saying this I know.

“Take October. Name it “National Story Planning Month.” Whatever you’re going to do in November, you don’t have to go in blind… December then becomes “National Edit Your Shit Month.” Or, if you need a month away from it, maybe you come back to it in January — but the point is, always come back to it.”

From “25 Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo” by Chuck Wendig.

Don’t write for word counts. Write scenes. Don’t just say, “Well I hit 1650 words today, I’m done,” and walk out in the middle of a thought or dialogue. Make a list of scenes. The word count will vary day by day but your story will flow better than a stop/start type of narrative.

Do create a community of writers. One of the keys to NaNoWriMo is writers encouraging other writers. Meet friends online or in your city who are also working on the project and continue to work together after November to improve on your skills and polish your work.

Now that you’ve done a good job of introducing your butt to the chair – kept those two together. Keep writing. Investigate new skills and methods  Don’t just get involved in the practice of writing, take time to learn the craft. Writers write. They also learn.

Ultimately, NaNoWriMo isn’t a magical novelist maker machine (just add November and a dash of Twitter). But the project can make a difference in your work when you realize that its benefits are actually the opposite of its stated purpose. NaNoWriMo is not a really a program to help writers “finish.”  It is a program to help you begin.


The Irrelevance of “Relevant”

Churches go through buzzwords like Major League games go through baseballs. Each new structure or growth idea (complete with Power point slides and a workbook) becomes the standard by which churches measure their stewardship of God’s word and community. When a word fails to produce results, it is batted away like a foul ball and a new word is brought out to play.

Goodbye, "Bring a Friend, Sunday" - Hello "Pack a Pew Campaign."

Goodbye, “Bring a Friend, Sunday” – Hello “Pack a Pew Campaign.”

Think of the many standards the mainstream spiritual institutions have endured in just a few short years.  To maintain and sustain growth, churches were supposed to be:

Inspirational – So we added a bunch of praise choruses before worship and called it “Singspiration.”

Relatable – Casual clothing, lay readers, and community announcements appeared.

Visionary – Soooo many pot-luck lunch break-out groups brainstorming beautiful mission and vision statements that looked really good on the bulletin.

Purpose Driven – “Programs, Get Your Programs Here – 5 small groups for a dollar or a ministry for young adult singles (divorced okay) for ten.”

Emergent – That always sounded like the chest-burster scene from “Alien” to me.

Missional – Hold a bible study in Starbucks and sponsor a Stop Hunger Now shipment. Maybe a community garden, if you know someone in the community who also has a garden.

There was nothing wrong with any of these ideas (although “Emergent” turned out to be more descriptive than functional).

They just didn’t last.  The latest word to step up to the plate for mainline churches and spiritual groups to pitch at is “Relevant.”

How many times have you heard one of these sentences?

  1. The church needs to be relevant.
  2. Millennials (a generation seemingly composed of magic bullets, gyroscopic influence and the Holy Grail) are looking for a church that is relevant to their needs.
  3. A personal faith must be relevant to the community around the person.
  4. Meditate on issues of relevance.

Relevance is the key spiritual leaders and cultural game changers are flocking toward.

Is this lemonade "relevant?"

Is this lemonade relevant?

It sounds intelligent, and it’s made of good intentions. Before we pin “relevance” to the top of our banner – let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that it really doesn’t mean anything.

“Relevant” is a chameleon made of sand. Its meaning changes with every lens, every leader, and every effort we undertake. It creates wildly out of bounds expectations and then disappoints when the perspective shifts the results.

Here’s an example:

In a blistering critique of Taylor Swift’s horrific earworm “Shake it off”, LA Times critic Randall Roberts doesn’t fault the sexism, the all-white-ballerina racism, the “wow-this-is-self-absorbed” dumbness of the lyrics – his primary issue is that in a world where the citizens of Ferguson are fighting injustice, a pop song about shaking off your troubles is not relevant.

“The harshest juxtaposition in “Shake It Off” comes with the song’s takeaway verse: “While you been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty dirty cheats of the world/ You could have been getting down to this sick beat.”

That’s sage advice when your biggest problem is whether to date a millionaire or billionaire. But when lives are at stake and nothing seems more relevant than getting to the Actual Truth, liars and cheats can’t and shouldn’t be shaken off.”

So – Ferguson’s struggle makes Taylor Swift’s pop song irrelevant. Sounds reasonable.

Then the news comes on. If you think racist actions and militarized police are bad, ISIS is beheading innocent people. Captives being murdered as a statement pushes Ferguson off the front page. The death of innocent people as a statement of war is more relevant.

And if tragic deaths of captives is the measure of relevance, then the Ebola related deaths of 12,000 people is the ultimate relevance until 1 person in Dallas dies – that’s more relevant to the US media than the 4 murdered captives, the people of Ferguson and Taylor’s Swift’s twerky video.

Also, there seems to be a violence problem in football.

See what happens when we use “relevant” as the standard? Things are automatically comparable, and get judged outside of the parameters of their natural state of being. Its overwhelming because in our humanity we can’t handle ALL the relevant things at once. It’s better to put things in a value system appropriate to what they are.

  • No one is looking to a pop song for geopolitical reality. Most folks want to dance.
  • Racism and brutality in Ferguson ( and elsewhere) must be challenged and must be stopped.
  • ISIS is an abhorrent threat that cannot be ignored.
  • Ebola is going to require our best knowledge, prayers and action no matter where it is.

It’s all “relevant” – whatever that means in the first place.

A spiritual leader or institution that sets its standard by what any group (even Millennials)  thinks is relevant is destined to get lost in the fray.

You are here.

You are here.

A better standard is something that lasts, something diverse that can span location, situation, time and tide.

Justice is a standard to reach for, and pursue.

Compassion is appropriate and powerful in any situation.

Metta – good energy, thoughts and feelings, inspires life-changing action across all boundaries.

And

Love – loving our neighbors becomes healing our neighbors. Loving our enemies becomes working together to seek justice. Loving with accountability means holding those who take a life responsible for their deeds. Loving your “self”  means finding the “Good-Orderly-Direction” in the way your heart needs most.

This does’t mean a church shouldn’t strive to do things they feel are relevant to their community or mission.  But before you sit down in one more meeting or one more blog post and talk about how your church, group, prayers, work, or relationships need to be “relevant” – take a moment, and make sure you are reaching for something more than just a new word.