Sunday, December 4, 2016

First Principle and Politics

This is a chalice lighting I did for my Unitarian Universalist church today. I've been asked to share it.



I've been watching sadly but with interest the amount of anger and vitriolic language going on in social media spheres. I had my moments in the week after the election to do some of that same venting. It’s a stage of grief - anger. But anyone who has been through grief counseling knows that it isn’t and shouldn’t be the emotion we get stuck in when suffering a loss which, I believe, this election is for most of us.

We chose one tenet of our Unitarian Universalist values to be first among seven life-guiding principles. We even have shorthand for it — “The first principle”. We all know it by heart and don’t even have to look at our cheat sheets to say it. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” 

It is indeed important.

In the Coming of Age program with our high schoolers, we take a trip to Target to buy and then package as holiday gifts items prisoners in Concord need. We talk to the youth about our first principle at length. How we need to reach out to those who we might not understand and whose actions we disagree with but who have inherent worth and dignity nonetheless. When we say “Every” person, we mean “Every. Person.”

I wonder then, If we can do this with convicted criminals, why can’t we have this same attitude with those who vote differently from us?

We show great respect to those who we feel need our help and sympathy, and to those who share our values but not so much with those we disagree with on politics. We dismiss them. We shut them down. We lecture. We judge. 

These are our neighbors I’m talking about not the politicians. People who live and work in the same community as us. Whose kids sit in classrooms with our kids. Who help friends and family in need. Who volunteer in their towns. Who lie awake at night worrying about making the rent or the mortgage. Whose parents age and fail and whose hearts are as broken as ours when their loved ones die. 

I feel that we, as Unitarian Universalists, are uniquely qualified and experienced to lead a respectful discussion of differences because of our first principle. It is what is needed most in this atmosphere of anger and fear.

This does not mean that we accept actions of prejudice, misogyny, religious persecution, homophobia, and inhumane treatment of the poor and the handicapped. 

But we are never going to understand why our neighbors feel the way they do and what compels them to vote different from us if we keep yelling at them. This only creates more of the Us/Them mentality that is destroying the country both liberals AND conservatives love so much.

I’ve always believed that we can change the world one person at a time by forming relationships of mutual respect and open conversation with people in our lives. I’m not saying it’s always easy. It isn’t. I have tried and failed with an extended family member.

We have work to do after this election but we also have lessons to learn. We have to stand up to injustice and hateful actions. Our principles matter. But we also have to have respectful conversations with those who are not in agreement with our political dreams for the country. Only then can we begin to close the widening chasm. 

The Pollard library in downtown Lowell is hosting a discussion on Saturday at 9:30am about how to start these conversations. If you’d like to join me, please reach out.

I light the chalice today for the work we have ahead of us and our first principle that will light our way.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stars, Stripes, and Collisions

I put my flag up today. Something my husband and I only do on Memorial Day and Independence Day. 

It started with a conversation with a friend yesterday who said that she can't fly her American flag or she would be accused of voting for Trump. 

I've noticed in the past few years (specifically post-9/11) that conservatives have somehow embraced the symbol of our country more than liberals. It seems that every time I see a flag waving from a pickup truck, the bumper has a Trump sticker and/or some anti-liberal sentiment.

When I spoke with a relative today, he was very distraught about the fate of our country under not only Trump but also his cohorts and ultra-conservative Republicans like Paul Ryan whose goal is to privatize Social Security. 

It's been a long election cycle. I'm glad it's over. However, the anxiety and fear that has been rampant during the election has escalated and turned into catastrophic thinking. My husband reminded me of 1972 when MA was the only state to vote against Nixon. MA Dems were convinced that Nixon would pave the entire state over in retaliation. Well, we know how Nixon's story ended.

My propensity for anxiety and panic forces me to choose another path or I will certainly suffer for it physically. So I work to find a way to find balance in my thoughts.

My love for astrophysics has helped me see that the universe seeks balance. It is how it not just survives but continues to expand. Sometimes stars implode but they create more stars from that radical shift, and on and on it goes. Augusten Burroughs writes, "Inside every single thing that lives is a debt to a distant star that died. Nothing new is ever created without one thing colliding into another."

We not only have to have faith that balance will ultimately happen but that something new will come from it. And for something new to be created, we must work for it. No one ever accomplished anything worthwhile without work. 

There is work to be done in our country. Work to ensure that the Constitution is upheld. That the marginalized are not harmed by changes in policy. That our voices are heard. That this collision creates new stars. 

I do what I can to help my country and those in it. I have been an election officer in my town and worked every election no matter how small since 2004. I have been a member of three non-profit boards that promote animal rights and land conservation. I work with youth to encourage free thinking and social justice. I serve on the Pastoral Care team at my church to help those who are struggling. And I do a lot let less than others I know. 

We need to get out of our electronic devices and start putting our hands and hearts to good work. There is so much to do and, as Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Let's start there and with our good intentions we will make change in our communities. Even if it doesn't change the nation, we can say we have done all that we can do. 

I can't fix this divided nation. But I love it anyway. With all its broken pieces and people. They are my neighbors, my family and my friends. 

So fly the flag proudly and if anyone makes assumptions then consider it an opportunity for dialogue. And those stars on the flag? Let them collide.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On Election Day

As I head out in an hour to work the polls for my town, I ready myself by focusing on the voting process. I reread instructions that I need as a precinct clerk to ensure that all anomalies are logged and every voter has their right to vote protected by me through our laws. I rest in order to prepare for a long night of processing all the paperwork after the polls close. I am expecting to be there as late as 11 due to write-ins and the pure volume of ballots.

When I get dressed, I dress in neutral colors so I don’t appear to be biased in any way. I wear comfortable shoes because I will be on my feet for at least 7 hours straight. I also dress my mind and attitude. This is a great country with a democratic process that works even though some folks would say otherwise. I love my country and I wish that all those who vote in my precinct today will see that all of the election officers are there for them and the process that keeps voting fair and legal. We may have strong feelings about certain candidates and issues but we check those at the door when we arrive to work. 

I place any qualms about safety and emotionally-charged voters in the hands of the police officers present and the universe. 

I’ll take a deep breath as I always do before entering the polling place and thank my lucky stars for being born in a country that allows people’s voices to be heard. 

And then I’ll get to work.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

To Unfriend or Not to Unfriend

My love for social media is bordering on the fatal attraction level. I've joined every type since they've been invented: Twitter, Facebook, MySpace (remember them?), LinkedIn, Instagram, Meerkat, Snapchat... the list goes on and on.

I've made new friends through these platforms, reconnected with old ones and gotten closer to current ones. For someone with an extroverted personality who wants to remain connected to everyone she's ever liked, social media has been a gift.

There are several people in my life who want nothing to do with social media. I hear reasons such as stalking concerns, privacy invasion and even fear that connecting on social media causes divorce. My answer is always that these situations are easily remedied with controls (both with online settings and personal restraint). But to no avail. 

I was raised by liberal parents. They were pretty hip and dad was always into the next new thing given his engineering background and general curiosity about everything. So exploring was always encouraged in our house as was an openness to other opinions. The more you get out in the world, the more you will find you are challenged.

During the course of my time on social media, I've followed or friended people whose opinions are very different from mine. I will often have one or more points of connectivity with them (sports, school, work) but learn so much more about them when we become internet friends.

There have been times when I am deeply committed emotionally to a point of view that I find is the complete opposite of some of these online friends. When I read their posts, I have to restrain myself. Clicking the unfriend or unfollow icon is so tempting and so easy. But is that really what I should or want to do?

I think back to my parents who subscribed to newspapers (both liberal and conservative) and read each one with interest. Sure they railed against the ultra conservative op-ed pieces but they didn't stop reading them. I think they also subscribed to the thought that their opinions needed to be tested in order for them to remain solid. 

Remembering that being out in the world means that long-held opinions might be knocked from a tight grip is the reason I don't unfriend or unfollow people. Unless that person says very hateful things, I remain connected. Reading their reactions to events along with those who agree with me is the only way for me to practice open-mindedness. 

I may not always agree with you and will challenge you sometimes but I will stand up for your right to your opinions as long as they are arrived at with logic, love and respect. 

If I surround myself with only those people who agree with me, I risk becoming an intolerant, narrow-minded autocrat whose circle will become smaller and more self-righteous as time goes on. 

I don't want to become that person nor do I want to be surrounded by those people. It is a study in that control I talked about earlier to use social media as a tool for self-discovery and growth. 

It's the opinions that we dislike that teach us who we are. 


Friday, May 15, 2015

Life, Death and Societal Safety

When I served on a criminal jury a few years back, I was surprised at how unemotional I was about the task at hand. I was very quickly able to suspend the reality that a young woman was in front of me who we were deciding to send to jail or not for forging checks and cashing them at area banks. She was 19 when she committed the crime as I recall. The same age as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when he murdered four people.

The judge spent a lot of time with us getting us to understand that we had to objectively weigh the evidence and leave our emotions outside the courtroom door. The young woman's court-appointed defense attorney was terrible. He didn't even appear to have studied her case and offered only one lame implausible scenario in her defense.

The prosecution had her on film cashing the checks at two different places. There was no mistaking her.

The jury was made up entirely of women. I noticed that as we were being chosen, the defense clearly challenged only men. Since attorneys have quite a few challenges without cause, that pretty much seated an all-female jury.

I understood why. Women would be perceived more likely to be sympathetic to this young woman and want to mother her, let her off easy, give her a second chance. The result was exactly the opposite. We unanimously decided she was guilty though as a group we all expressed the sadness we felt that her life was already so off track.

It was when I walked out of the courtroom and headed back home that it hit me. This young woman would serve time and I was one of the reasons. It was a long drive home stuck in Boston rush hour traffic so I had a lot of time to think. 

How easy it was for me to distance myself emotionally from her in order to get the job done. I am not an uncaring person nor did I ever feel vindictive in voting guilty. I had a job to do for the state of Massachusetts and its citizens and I did it. I do not regret that.

In discussing the death penalty and more specifically the Tsarnaev case, I often put myself in the jurors' shoes. I did not have to consume some of the shocking images that they did at trial and I did not have the same level of punishment to weigh. But I'm sure they had suspended reality just as I had - at least to some degree - to get the job done with the same amount of integrity.

I am for the death penalty in some situations - and the Tsarnaev case is just one of those situations. As with the young woman whose fate I had to decide, I am not cheering that justice was served or feeling that the "good guys" won. No one wins. Let me repeat that - NO ONE.

My reasons for supporting the death penalty are quite against the teachings of the Unitarian Universalist faith I belong to. I am likely in the minority in my beliefs on this and some other non-liberal stances I've taken in the past. 

UUs believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. And when we say "all", we mean all. When I work with the high school group and this topic comes up in relation to heinous criminals, it is a hard one to get our heads around. (Note: I never tell them my stance, but rather facilitate a discussion.)

My backing the death penalty has to do with the belief that anyone who has shown him/herself to be monstrously dangerous to society has to go. There must be no way for that person to ever harm anyone again. Life in prison is not life away from society. Prison is its own society.

Having been involved in animal rescue for 15 years in a leadership position, I feel the same about animals who are in a similar situation. Making a decision to euthanize a dangerous dog that cannot be rehabbed is not easy. I've had to do it. But it is done for the safety of society. Society is more important than any one individual. In order for the species to continue, I've always felt that there needs to be a way to eliminate those who would destroy it. 

So what was my reaction to Tsarnaev's death sentence? After reading this you would think that I would just nod and say that my Darwin-like sensibility was satisfied. You would be wrong.

As I watched the Boston news channel and followed comments on Twitter, I was overcome with sadness. While the 24 pages of the decision was being read (before the death sentence was revealed) I sobbed. Then I sobbed even more when the sentence was read. Why? Since I thought that the decision was correct?

Because a loss of life is still a sad thing. Whether justified (in Tsarnaev's case) or not (in the victims' cases). Again, NO ONE won. This is not about winning or losing. 

When I had to euthanize dogs because they could not be in society without causing harm, I sobbed each time. It mattered to me with them and with Tsarnaev that they started their lives as blank slates. They were held and loved and no one expected anything but wonderful things for them. But something went very wrong. Something that could not be fixed. And so, for the good of society, a difficult decision had to be made. 

I'm sure that there are many many people in my church and outside my church who disagree with me. That's okay. Death penalty opposition to others is a spiritual gut-feeling just like my vegetarianism is to me. Neither is "logical" and can't be argued that way.

But I do ask that my right to my own well-thought out belief be respected and I will do my best to respect others who disagree with me. It is my hope that we can all share in the sadness of the loss of life and potential. And that we can move on together to build a society that is better for everyone. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Quilting by hand

My latest quilting project
"Not many of you left," she said. 

I was in a fabric store in Portsmouth, NH today with a friend and I was checking out with my three spools of all-cotton thread that is hard to find. 

My friend Erika and I had been poking around the store looking at all the pretty fabric and I was dreaming of my next quilt. When I started seeing a life coach, we talked about many things that I want to accomplish, not just a change in career.

Getting back to quilting was just one of those things. And I've been on a roll with a queen-sized quilt that I started 4+ years ago but put down due to caretaking and work commitments.

I asked the quilt-shop owner some questions about the thread based on the type of quilting I do  hand-pieced and hand-quilted which is different from machine quilting in many ways.

When she said there weren't many of us left, she was right. I know other quilters and, with the exception of my friend Lynne who taught me how to hand-qulit, none of them do all the work by hand.

I've often thought that the art of hand-crafting is being lost in our society. We do lots of work with our hands still but it involves electronic devices. We don't even teach our kids cursive writing any longer. 

The shop owner who looked to be about 10 years older than me, said that she used to hand-quilt years ago. When my friend Erika asked her why she gave it up she said simply, "Arthritis." 

My heart sank. Is this my fate? Do I only have 10 years left to do this thing that I love so much? If so, I better get to work!

My mom always lived her life as though she would live forever. I'm not saying that I am awaiting death but I also don't kid myself that at 56 I have all the time in the world to accomplish some bucket list items. 

It's a trapeze act, these mid-life years. Honoring and appreciating the wisdom and experience that you've gained over 50+ years shouldn't exclude you from gaining more in the time you have left. It's easy to sit back and relax. Never pushing the envelope, always playing it safe.

The trick is to suspend reality just enough to allow yourself to act as if you have forever while bringing along what you've learned in forever.


Monday, March 30, 2015

A new job brings new questions

I've been at my new job for about a month now and I'm still not used to it. That doesn't mean I don't like it. It's just different. Very different. How diffent? Work stops at 4 pm. Period. I have no deadlines. I have no one reporting to me. My work is very straightforward. The technology is simple. I am never in meetings or on the phone. No one sends me emails.

When I left high-tech recently I left behind what was my career path. I had moved up the ladder (slowly due to my CFS but "up" nonetheless) to the point where the stress was too much for me. 

In order to do my management job well and support both my clients and my direct reports, I felt that I needed to be available pretty much 24x7. I was involved with a crisis du jour for years and didn't really think there was any other option for me.

When I left it all behind last month, I went to work for my beloved town. I've been involved in Westford pretty much since I moved here almost 17 years ago. The first thing I jumped into was the Westford Conservation Trust where I was a director and newletter editor for about three years. I've worked the elections for the town for 11 years and really enjoy that process.

For years I have also written for Westford news agencies as either a columnist or a news reporter. 

Going to work for my town was appealing to me on many levels. It wasn't just about downsizing my stress, it was actually more about helping my town. 

Several people have said to me, "So you're basically semi-retired now." My reaction so far has been to say that I am really just changing careers. And that I've worked part-time for many years now so that's no different.

But am I being honest with myself? And why do I feel so defensive about not being viewed as a serious career person? At 56?

My employee model as a kid was my dad. He went over 30 years without a sick day. He would take a vacation day if he was really sick - and by really sick I mean unable to move. He felt that it was important to set an example for his direct reports that sick days are to be kept to a minimum. Dad worked a lot and clawed his way up the corporate ladder without a college degree. He worked hard to provide for his family. 

Retirement did not go well for my dad. He was sort of lost without work. He liked to be a mover and a shaker and took great pride in making things happen that no one else could do. 

I always said I would not define myself by any job so that I could retire with ease. So why does my back go up when people say I am even just semi-retired? It's the old Yankee/Puritan work ethic, I think. I don't want to appear lazy or unmotivated. 

This has been an underlying issue with many in the American work force throughout time. So many of us feel that we need to be exhausted after a "good day's work." Working into the night and on weekends has become a badge of honor for a lot of workers in high-tech careers. There's almost a camaraderie built around how little free time team members have. It takes the "I feel your pain" head shake to a new level.

I expect this time to be an adjustment. 35 years of excelling in technical, competitive, political jobs has shaped how I view myself in society. It has also provided me with a sense of accomplishment. Like my dad, I have always taken pride in making things happen and moving things forward when others could not. 

My soul-searching work during this life-changing time is first to notice my long-held beliefs about work and life. Then I have to pull apart the pieces and examine them. Are some okay to keep? Can I integrate them into my new direction or do they just not fit any longer? Why do these beliefs matter to me? And is it okay to ditch them after all these years?

I'm lucky, I know. Not only have I had rewarding career experiences I also have had many opportunities presented to me because of a great network of people I've worked with in different capacities.

The questions I have to answer for myself make this time uneasy but also helps me prepare the way for a fulfilling retirement. Change without self-reflection is just change for the sake of change.