Saturday, February 18, 2017

Of Lipstick and Liberals

MAC lipstick. My favorite brand.
I started getting into lipstick in the past two years because of a young friend who is really into it. I never thought it was something I looked good wearing and bristled at the brightness of the color on my face. 

But my friend Laura kept encouraging the practice by giving me lipstick samples, taking me on lipstick shopping trips, and discussing the different types of lipstick. It was all foreign to me but I started to embrace it. Now I never leave the house without even the most muted color on my lips - just as my mom did her whole adult life.

It's been a tough few months to be a liberal. The constant negativity in the news about the GOP's efforts to shut down civil rights, animal rights, and earth-centered policies is so against my core values. I have lost a lot of sleep while catastrophizing the next four years. 

My friend Susan told me recently that I need to keep writing and I realize that writing helps me put things in perspective. And maybe it helps others do the same. I find when I write that I don't catastrophize. Instead I find the inner pearl of wisdom that gets me to see the lesson in all of this. 

Today when I got out of bed, I do what I always do - check social media to see what's going on in the world (mine and the country's). It was filled with the usual button-pushing headlines. Comedians I follow try to find the humor in the absurdity of this presidency. That helps. Some. 

My mind shifted to my day. What did I have to do when I arose? As if by habit, my mind went to what I needed to do: answer emails, clean the house, do some laundry. It took me a few minutes to remember that I'm going out with a gang of friends tonight (we call ourselves The Usual Suspects) that bring me great joy.

I started thinking about what I would wear since we are going to a gourmet restaurant and jeans just won't do it. I mentally picked out my outift and then my mind turned to what lipstick I would wear because now I have a fairly large selection of colors and finishes to choose from (thank you, friend Laura). 

As a person who cares about the world, I think I often get lost in its troubles.  The earth's troubles become mine to the point of forgetting that I'm part of the universe too. What good does it do if I forego my life as penance for the misguidedness of others? How much of myself do I have to lose in an attempt to compensate for greater societal losses?

And, more importantly, will it change anything?

I have my coping strategies to get through what I feel is a downturn in my country's future. One of them is humor, one is listening to uplifting music especially the Hamilton soundtrack which reminds me that this country is resilient, another is helping those who suffer on a one-to-one level. These add brightness to a world that sometimes feels colorless. 

Kind of like lipstick. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A New Calling

My pastoral care stoll
I'm not one for making New Year's resolutions. I always figured that if I wanted to start something new, I shouldn't wait for a calendar change. 

One of the changes I made in 2016 was to accept an invitation from my minister to join her Pastoral Care Team. She asked me three years before but I was not in a place to help anyone after caretaking for aging parents for a few years.

The truth is I learned a lot from others who held me while I did that caretaking. But it took me some time to recognize those lessons in myself. I was (and, sometimes, still am) engulfed in the negativity from the experience. I needed to care for me for once and not worry about others.

As I came out of the self-involvement of trauma and grief, I started to see how those who supported me maybe needed some support too. 

There were a couple of church friends who were going through difficult times in their lives with the loss of loved ones. I was there for them as much as I could and tried to carry some of the weight. When discussing the pastoral care invitation with our intern minister she told me, "Kathy, you already are on the team. At least come to the meetings for the support."

I felt completely unqualified to do the work of pastoral care. What if I screw up and say something that makes things worse for someone? Who am I to walk someone through emotional difficulty?

My minister ran a training session for the team and I read a book she provided. I learned that it's not so much about talking as it is listening. It's not walking for but walking with. I remembered that most of what I needed for myself in those years of caretaking was a sympathetic ear and for someone to validate the misery I was in. No one could fix the situation and I bristled when someone suggested they could with overly simplified solutions.

This pastoral work is something that I found calls to me in a way that other volunteer work never could. When speaking to someone who is in crisis, I find an inner calm instead of anxiety which I expected at first. I'm not sure where that comes from and why it changed. Maybe it's because I have matured after the losses in my life. Or maybe it's because of the mentoring and support I receive from the ministry of our church and other team members. 

But I think some of it comes from the honor I felt as I was blessed by the congregation when given the stoll I now wear at church services. It was a moment of clarity for me. That this was real and important. That I am trusted by others to walk with them during the worst parts of their lives. 

If my health were better I would pursue a chaplaincy degree. Even at this late stage in my career life. 

And so though it's not something I can do full-time I will try to learn as much as I can from my ministers and team members. They are my role models and inspiration.

And when I wear my stoll or sit with those who grieve, I will remember that not everything in life is planned. That love and grief go hand in hand. That listening is more important than talking. And what a gift it is to be trusted with all of it.

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.