When novelist Toni Morrison died last month, my social media feed was filled with tributes. I wanted to participate but I couldn’t just say “R.I.P.” or simply pick my favorite quote. It wouldn’t do justice to the gift of language Morrison had given me.

7908960-LI read her novel Beloved, set in the slave-holding American south, during my sophomore year of college, the same year I found myself unexpectedly pregnant, carrying a child whom I would give up for adoption. Beloved does not have a happy ending and in the final chapter, the main character Sethe grieves for the baby girl she has “lost.” She laments to her friend Paul, “She was my best thing.”

At 19 I read that line and my heart stopped. I didn’t know how to say it before, but it was true.

“She was my best thing” was everything I believed about the life growing within me and she was gone, or about to be. I remember telling Tim the story of Sethe and her daughter, confessing my deepest fears – that having this child and letting her go might be the “best thing” I would ever do.

I was right, but not entirely. Sarah Moses was “my best thing,” but  I went on to marry Tim and he engraved “my best thing” inside my wedding ring. I gave birth to three more children who became “my best thing” – one after another.

“My best thing” became a collective noun for my people, the ones for whom my heart beats and breaks and elates.

And as Toni Morrison passed from this earth this summer, I once again entered a phase of letting go of “my best thing” one by one.

Last month, I drove Finn to Yosemite National Park to embark on a 200+ mile trek on the John Muir Trail. I was so excited for him to make this journey, right up until it came time for him to walk into the woods. Then the water works started…. I wasn’t worried about the danger. Rather it hit me that this was Joseph-Campbell level shit. He will be a different person on the other side of this trip – transformed by the solitude, the hardship and the beauty of the experience. “My best thing” is out there alone.

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This past week, I flew to the east coast to visit Keara and help her organize a new life in Providence, Rhode Island. After her first post-college gig as a scenic carpenter with Williamstown Theater Festival this summer, I thought she was returning home. Instead she got an opportunity to stay and start a new life with new friends in a new city. I am beyond excited for her, but still…. All week long, I was overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance. This is exactly what I wanted for her, but suddenly it seemed like the worst idea in the world. “My best thing” is 3,000 miles away from me for the foreseeable future.

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This last Monday Molly began her senior year of high school. My baby “best thing” is still under my roof, still available for morning hugs and good night kisses, still asking me to be involved in her life on a daily basis. For that I am grateful, but I know it’s just a matter of time. This is slow-motion letting go, day by day, month by month until next fall when it’s her time to say goodbye. I don’t know where she’s headed, but “my best thing” won’t be here with me anymore.

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As I enter this phase of my parenting journey, I am more convinced than ever that Love means letting go – of our fears, agendas, projections, and pride – and at the same time Love means showing up – authentically, humbly, and gratefully. What a privilege it is to Love and be Loved. Truly, it is the “best thing” any of us can hope for.

It’s been a month, but I finally want to thank Toni Morrison for giving me the language to say goodbye, while still holding on to the ones I love.

Your gift was prodigious; your spirit was generous and the legacy of your language will live on in my heart forever.

 

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We all know what TGIF stands for, right?

THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY!!!

Nah, not anymore. I’ve found something better for those letters.

Last month, Brené Brown shared her own version of TGIF on her blog and it’s brilliant. I liked it so much I decided to adopt the practice as my own, not just as a way review my week, but as a conversation starter with the people I care about. On Friday nights, Tim and I are often with family and friends, gathered around a meal or drinks. Bringing up TGIF is the perfect way to talk about something more meaningful than the sports or the weather. We usually end up getting a little vulnerable, laughing at ourselves and each other and inevitably veering off into ten different conversations we wouldn’t have had otherwise. TGIF is a recipe for connection.

So here’s the ingredients:

T – WHAT AM I TRUSTING IN?

G- WHAT AM I GRATEFUL FOR?

I – WHAT AM I INSPIRED BY?

F – WHAT AM I HAVING FUN WITH?

Maybe it’s not surprising, but the T is the one people have the hardest time wrapping their head around. Maybe it’s the way the question is phrased – the WHAT. We’re not used to thinking about what we “trust in” besides people, but there’s a whole range of underlying assumptions that get us through the week – things we’re counting on, hoping for, or expect to be true. One week, I answered, “I’m trusting the process” when I was interviewing for a new part-time writing job. After I got the job, I was “trusting in” my ability to do the work that was asked of me. Tim has been “trusting in” his body to hold up and allow him to do the things he needs (and sometimes wants) to do for another four months or so until he has his hip replacement. T gets us in touch with our deepest hopes and desires.

I think the rest of the letters are pretty self-explanatory, so I’m just going to share my TGIF for the week. Try it out tonight, or some Friday soon with your people

*If you have little ones (or people who are resistant to the TRUST concept), adapt it! The T can work as a Thankful and the G can move to – WHAT WAS I GREAT AT THIS WEEK?

T – TRUSTING IN

If you can’t tell from these pictures, I am TRUSTING IN the next generation. There is so much negativity about the “kids these days” – always has been and probably always will be – but I love hanging out with people who are younger than me – not just my own kids, but other people’s kids too. Not only are they hilarious, but they are also risk-takers, hard workers and deep thinkers to boot. When I can listen from a place of curiosity instead of doubt or judgement, I learn so much from their perspective about what’s going on in the world and where they think we’re headed. My 30-something friends are pretty awesome too, always ready to engage me in new adventures (like belly-dancing) and lovely conversations. (I love people my own age and older generations as well, but I’m TRUSTING IN the next one!)

G – GRATEFUL

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This past week, I’m beyond GRATEFUL for the six nights that all five members of Team Kirks slept under one roof.  That’s the longest stretch we’ve all been together in a year and a half. We had home-cooked meals, game nights, hot tub sessions, movie outings, and stops at Long Island Mike’s, our all-time favorite pizza place. I moved two college kids home and then moved one back out to Massachusetts her first post-graduate job in her field. Also, for the first time ever, we even had a moment where four members of the family were working at Wavelines at the same time. That’s a good day at work!

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Tim snuck out the back door and missed the photo opportunity!

I – INSPIRED

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Last Sunday, we saw Rocketman, the biopic about Elton John. Do yourself a favor – go see it. Not only was it a creative musical masterpiece, but it was also a beautiful, heart-breaking testament to the power of parenting and families, culture and talent to shape our lives. What I found most inspiring of all was Elton’s determination to overcome his addictions midway through his life. The film showed how much courage it takes and how difficult it is for addicts to choose to fully experience what it means to be human after years, or decades of running away from it. To face your trauma, to actually feel your pain, to learn new coping skills, to look in the mirror every day and see the unadulterated truth of who you are and all the ways you’ve been f*@ked over and then f*@ked up – Man, that deserves an Oscar, if not for the film, then for everyone who has ever gotten sober.

F – FUN

It’s always hard for me to narrow this one down, since usually I’m GRATEFUL and INSPIRED by the things I am having the most fun with, but, this week, I am having FUN with music.  I am currently in a six-week personal training group at my local YMCA.  I love my trainer and the people I meet, but man – it is hard work to eat well, drink water and exercise all the time! Whew! I cannot keep it up for more than these forty-two days, but Amazon Prime Music is keeping me company and keeping the tunes flowing. Big props to that next generation that keeps making some incredible and incredibly awful pop music that keeps my feet moving on those timed miles and countless lunges!

It’s a Friday afternoon here on the California coast, just miles away from the Pacific. Summer hasn’t really begun yet, but the sun is making a rare appearance this afternoon and it’s making me smile. I think I’ll grab a book that is TGIF all rolled into one and sit outside and read.  In a few more hours, I’ll be ready to gather with my people ask the question: What are you trusting in these days?  I hope you get a chance to ask them as well.

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Last year, I adopted a body prayer as a Lenten practice. It’s impact on me was significant, so I continued the practice long after the season was over and decided to return to it this year. It is a simple, but powerful way to bring my attention to the present moment and my purpose in it. I forget those things constantly, so I can’t do it just once a day either. Rather, I set alarms on my iPhone in loose imitation of the monastic hours: 7:00 a.m., 10:00, 1:00, 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. As soon as my “bells” chime, I step outside, (or at least aside), and complete the prayer. Sometimes I have to delay for five, or ten minutes, but one of the greatest powers of the practice is in heeding the call when it comes – prioritizing being present in mind, body and soul – over whatever else I’m doing.


Here is the prayer, step by step.

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1. I stand firmly on two feet, grounding myself. I focus on the stability of the earth beneath me, supporting me, lifting me up, and meeting me where I am. I take a deep breath and still my thoughts from wherever they’ve been, wherever I’ve been, just moments before.

My words: “Here I am, as I am, in this world, as it is.”

This position is my reality check. I came to pray, but I arrive distracted, perhaps even irritated, anxious, or tired. And the world is meeting me, full of its own pain, the never-ending cycle of human suffering. This step of the prayer acknowledges the inherent imperfection of life, but in this moment, it’s enough that I showed up. Pausing here for some deep breaths, I arrive fully. This is my response to Divine invitation to “come as you are” to experience the gifts of presence and connection. Nothing else is required.

 

2. From standing with hands at my side, I move them to “praying hands” and bow at the waist. I take a few moments to breathe deeply here (and in each position).

My words: “I bow to the wholeness and holiness of which I am a part.”

In this position, I acknowledge the perfection of the cosmos and its Creator, but also my own part in it. The universe is vast and mysterious, but I am not inconsequential to the unfolding of God’s plan. To the extent I am aware and available, I can contribute more productively to it. This is a moment of great humility and deep self-respect. I matter enormously and not at all.

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3. With another deep breath, I move my arms into a V above my head and place my feet closer together. This is a gesture of welcome and receptivity.

My words: “I open myself to receive what the Universe has waiting for me this day.”

All that is good is generously offered to me each and every day: divine energy, love, compassion, grace, mercy, growth. It may not always look, or feel “good,” especially on bad days, or in times of deep suffering, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The very nature of God is a complete and total fountain-fullness of hesed, the Hebrew word for God’s unshakeable, steadfast, generous love. God can’t help but allow good things to rain down on the just and unjust alike.

I want hesed for myself; I want hesed for the world, but I cannot receive it without making room. A cup full of water can hold no wine, which takes me to the next words of my prayer in this position.

My words: “I empty myself of my agenda for this day.”

As I say these words, my mind brings forth all the other things I need to release to make room for God’s gifts and the possibility to love and be loved in surprising ways. My agenda is just my plan for the day, but there are also my attachments – the things I want to be true and the way I want things to go. And don’t forget my projections – who I think others should be, and how I think they should show up in the world. While we’re at it, let’s also release the fears that go around making all sorts of unconscious decisions that limit me, and the certainty that leads me to judge, reject and limit other people.

I can’t possibly welcome the mystery of God’s plan if I think I have everything figured out already, so my body takes the shape of a funnel – wide open to receive from above , while releasing anything that has its origin in my own smallest self.

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4. I place my hands over my heart in a gesture of recollection and tenderness.

My words: “I acknowledge all that I have received.”

This is a moment of deep gratitude and recognition for the gifts I have been given. I feel my heart beat. In this moment, I am alive; I have breath. I have family; I have a home. I am safe and I am loved. I have felt the grace of God in my life and I see the ways it has shaped me. I pause for a moment of peace.

 

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5. I throw my arms open wide and twist at the waist, back and forth, in a gesture of release.

My words: “I share all that I am and all that I have.”

This position seeks to balance the self-preoccupation of the previous gesture. I am not given those gifts, because I am special, or blessed, or uniquely deserving in anyway. They are not mine to hoard, but to give away, as freely and fiercely as I’m able. Honestly, when it comes to generosity, some days are better than others, but this gesture always reminds me of the poet Rilke’s plea to God: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back.”

Let go, let God, let goodness flow. Let me not merely be a recipient; let me be a conduit.

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6. In this final posture, I place my hands at my side, touching my legs. I ground my feet into the earth once again. I feel more deeply rooted, more aware of the energy that flows through me.

My words: “I am here. I am home. I am Yours.”

Usually at this point, I can feel my mind start to wander back to where I was before, or ahead to where I’m going next, but these words stop me in my tracks.  If I cannot be here, stay here, for one more moment, then what was the point?

I am here, as I am – in this world, as it is – and it is okay.

I am home – in my body, in this place, in this moment. Pardon the cliché, but I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

I am Yours – I don’t have to manufacture my own purpose, or figure everything out today. I simply know I belong – to Life, to Love, to Creation and the Creator of it all.


I know it sounds like a lot of time and effort, and honestly I do rush through the steps often enough, but at least a couple times a day, I go as slowly as I can, my face to the sun. In the video, I’m moving a little quickly, since I’m in a public space and Tim’s filming me. (He does not love public displays of prayer, or New Age-y body movements.) If you’re going to give it a try, find a quiet place where you can practice without self-consciousness! The song playing is called, “Ulysses” by Josh Garrels. I love that song and after hundreds of listens, it will forever call me back to myself.

P.S.    Fr. Richard Rohr says that people ask him how long they should pray. “Pray until you get to YES,” he tells them, “That’s what I do.”
I’ve found this to be a really helpful version of a YES prayer. In each position, I’m invited to come to an authentic YES. I can hurry past it in any one step, but usually by the end, I have come to an acceptance of some truth about myself and how I’m showing up. Then I can decide what to do about it.

At its core, YES is humility.

YES is freedom and choice.

YES is an act of Love.

I want to thank Cynthia Bourgeault and the Wisdom Way of Knowing for teaching me their version of this prayer and their encouragement to “practice my practice” in my own way.

One of the texts I’ve been working my way through this past month (and am committed to completing this Lent) is this

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As you can imagine, it’s super uplifting stuff.

It’s one of those books you plan to read sooner or later, but somehow never get around to. Instead it sits on your bookshelf for years, pages yellowing in the afternoon sunlight… That probably sounds oddly specific, but that’s what happens to the books I feel like I should read, but don’t actually want to. However, a few months ago I finally wanted to and pulled it off the shelf. While visiting us from Montana, my eighty-one-year-old mother-in-law was rushed to the hospital in respiratory failure. There is nothing like the chaos of a near-death experience (even if not your own) to make you seek out “a Message of Hope, Comfort and Spiritual Transformation.”

Whatever the title led me to believe I was getting, it’s not what I’ve gotten out of this book. I’d heard the author described as a hospice worker, author and public speaker, but cracking open the first page, I was immediately struck by her other qualities, namely a PhD, with an expertise in transpersonal psychology, Sufi cartography, integral theory, and the evolution of human consciousness. Reading this text on death and dying is no Chicken Soup for the Soul, no pabulum to ease the bitterness of death; it’s hard work, but I’m grinding my way through it. And not only is it helping me understand what my mother-in-law may be experiencing, but what we will all experience at some point – the death, not only of our body, which is painful enough, but of our ego, our individuality and our ability to control anything at all, which is excruciating. We know how to medicate and manage physical trauma; it’s often the psychological and spiritual pain that is our undoing. Despite that hard truth, or perhaps because of it, I’ve found some good news in here. She says we can actually start taking some preventative measures now to reduce the psychic pain later.

Here’s one. Our life is full of opportunities to die to some parts of our “selves” we’ve (over)identified with. Every disappointment, every failure, every injury and illness, every break-up with a friend, or partner, every stumble along the way offers us the chance to ask the critical question, “Who am I?”

The best way to prepare for our eventual death is a “perpetual stance of exploration… the continual asking of the question, ‘Who am I?’… At first the answers to the question are the easy and automatic responses memorized during the decades of the mental ego’s identity project.” For example, for the last two decades and more, I have been able to say I am a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, freckle-faced cis-gender, heterosexual woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, reader, writer, student, teacher, runner, swimmer, walker, weightlifter, surfer, snowboarder, baker, seeker, volunteer. Sorry for rambling, but you get the point. I can identify as a lot of things. We all can!

But here’s the kicker. I have failed at virtually each and every one of those things. I have been found lacking and had to die to who I thought I was, or more specifically, who I dreamed I could be in my lifetime in that role. My “self” sometimes really sucks. But in that space of confusion and disappointment in myself and the situation, am I courageous enough to ask myself: “Who am I if I am no longer this?” and the even more piercing and existential question: “Will they love who am I now enough to stay with me?”

When we don’t know the answer to those questions, we get confused and anxious, but in fact, according to the book, “not knowing is good. Not knowing is ‘beginner’s mind.’ Not knowing allows openness to the possibilities inherent in each moment. It is the only space in which wisdom can arise, because it has no preconceptions,” no pre-judgments about what could or should happen. In those moments when we are pierced by the sword of reality that “Reality shines through the holes left by the piercing.” In that crisis of self, a deeper and truer Self can fill in the gaps, preparing us for the final moment when the Self is all we have left. With any luck, and a lot of grace, it just might make the transition a little easier on us and those we love.

A final thought –

It is because you believe that you are born that you fear death.

Who is it that was born?

Who is it that dies?

Look within.

What was your face before you were born?

Who you are, in reality, was never born and never dies.

Let go of who you think you are and become who you have always been.

  – Stephen Levine

The quotes from The Grace in Dying are taken from a section called “Self-Inquiry,” pages 160-165.

On a personal note –

My mother-in-law has steadily improved over the last ten weeks. She has worked hard to be well again, with a kindness and determination that is much commented on by the staff everywhere she’s been. And while this situation has been difficult, it has also allowed her family to come together with love and mutual support. She will be released on Monday to her daughter’s home in Northern California for a few more months of recovery before she returns to her own home in the early summer. This is her hand in Molly’s last week as we visited over dinner.

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Though it has been far too long since I last wrote here, I couldn’t let Ash Wednesday come and go without having a word. Though I had no idea what I wanted to say, I woke this morning with a gravitational pull on my heart to be present here as this holy season begins.

Dozens of my Lents have been spent focused on self-denial and self-discipline, convinced that it was the appropriate time to overhaul who I was and all that was “wrong” with me. Sometimes the results “worked,” getting me a little healthier and humbler, but they rarely made me any holier. And this year, I don’t have it in me to work on my “self,” – not my self-image, my self-indulgences, or even the self-criticism that is my daily companion.

Tim and I have been talking for days about what practices we might adopt during these forty days, but nothing had resonated deeply yet. However, after my sit this morning, I walked over to our family message board, wrote this and sent a picture of it to my kids.

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And followed it up with this text.

It’s Ash Wednesday Team Kirks.  Just a gentle reminder from your mama that we don’t do “old school” Lent. This year, I want to do these things – not sacrificing in ways that don’t bring help and healing to the world in some small way. If Easter is the universal message that out of death comes new life, out of despair hope, out of darkness light, then these last weeks of winter can prepare us to be open to that new life, light and hope. Be brave and be kind today and know deep in your bones that the depth and passion with which I love you is just a fraction of the cosmic Love that Loves us all and has given us this life and chance to be together on the journey.

Fasting, prayer and almsgiving?

Okay, if you insist… but only if they make me more like the Christ who comes, not just on Easter, but each and every day. Giving up Diet Coke hasn’t done the trick and neither has sacrificing that second glass of wine. But some of those reminders on my message board just might  – in my own home, at work, or on the street.

 

I hope to share a few of the things I’m reading and practices I’m engaging with over the course of the next six weeks. Thanks for welcoming me back into your inbox!

 

 

 

What I want to do this morning is run (away), so what I’m forcing myself to do is sit (still). I want to run away from the anxiety I feel about so many things, not the least of which are the fires raging here in California, the loss of life, home, habitat, and economy. There is also personal, marital, and professional grist for the mill of my unhappy mind, so I found myself doing what I often do on high stress days – (after sweeping of course). I started making a list of all the things I “have” to do today: errands, emails, the gym, banking, cooking, cleaning, but it’s total bullshit.  I don’t have to do any of it, but I would much prefer to do those things than to be present to the world’s pain, or my own. If I stay busy with what is “urgent” then I can ignore what is important.

Is a trip to Vons to buy juice boxes for Molly’s lunch more important than struggling with some life questions that might set me on a new path? Nope, but it’s way easier to check it off my list.

I don’t have to put it in such binary terms. I can do both kinds of things. I can work out, go grocery shopping, put in a half-day at Wavelines and have time for meditation, and journaling, but the temptation is to start checking things off the “urgent” list and never get to the end of it, and therefore never get to the things that are ultimately transformative and life-giving. For all the days I follow that pattern, a beautiful part of what it means to be human – to learn, to change, to grow in life and love – is lost. So today, I am starting with the prayer and meditation, with poetry and writing to all of you and I’ll get to rest later. (Tim, I’m going to be a little late getting to the shop today!)

Let me leave you with this thought.

I want to do something to ease the suffering of those affected by the California wildfires, but I’m too far away to be of any help personally. So I can donate some money, reach out to those I know are hurting and I can pray. I’m not sure exactly what good that last item does, but this poem by Alice Walker in her latest book, Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, has strengthened my resolve to keep at it.

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“The Energy of the Wave”

As a child I sensed

but did not

grasp

the power

of prayer.

It was my innocence

of the depths

that kept me unaware.

How could the passion of the heart

sent flying towards others

through humble words

change anything?

Or, rather,

what might this change?

 But prayer is an energy

that crosses mountains and deserts

and continents and seas

and is never stopped

nor even slowed

by anything.

It arrives

at its destination

as a blessing

that says: I feel – though it is but

a shadow of your sorrow –

the suffering

that has befallen

you.

Though far away,

you are securely cradled

 in the safety

of my heart.

I am but a droplet

in what must become

a vast sea

to create the big wave

that washes

away

whatever demons

are harming

you.

Prayer is the beginning: when

we don’t know

what else to do.

It is in this

spirit

of awareness and near impotence

beloved

kin

of butchered Africa

that we stand with you.

 

Walker dedicated this poem to the people of Africa, but I am confident in its universal application. So let us pray today for all the sorrows in all the hearts in all parts of the world, as far as we can imagine and as close as our own. Let our prayers be a droplet in a wave of compassion, generosity, forgiveness and mercy that this world so desperately needs.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on #Signs of Love, not because I haven’t had things to say, but because I haven’t had the time to say them properly. I was working on a funny little “come back” blog, but this topic just keeps coming up – over and over and over again. When that happens, I’ve come to trust that a holy invitation is being offered, one that should be explored, not ignored.

This morning, I opened up my Facebook feed and found this reflection written Collin Packer, a white minister in Dallas, Texas, in response to the killing of Botham Shem Jean in his own home by a police officer. I had heard his name a couple times over the last week, but hadn’t tuned in to the details of the case. I don’t know all the facts, but Packer’s point of view is an important one, as it is written by a peer, a member of the local community and a person in a position of power.

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Yesterday, I attended the funeral of Botham Shem Jean. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. Botham was a man of God, a graduate of Harding University, a worship leader, and a brother in Christ. We shared the same city and the same small religious tribe. He attended our church a few times.

8 days ago, Botham was murdered in his home. The shooter was not taken into custody until 3 days later. And yesterday, while I was sitting at his memorial service, those in power prepared to release the results of what often happens when African-American men are murdered: a thorough investigation into the life of a victim to criminalize him and somehow help others come to the conclusion that he, because of some flaw, “deserved” the bullet that took his life in his own home.

We don’t just murder African-American men. We murder their character. And we continue to justify systems that have continually devalued black bodies from the moment they arrived on our shores on slave ships. 

I am a white minister in Dallas. My family has lived here for generations. I have benefited from so much that this city has offered me. But my experience is not the experience of everyone in Dallas.

And I refuse to be silent and complicit any longer. Botham’s memorial service, along with many other events over the past few years, have unstopped my ears and cleared my eyes.

In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke words that still ring true in our day:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”

I want to challenge my white brothers and sisters in Christ to be willing to speak up for justice. May we be willing to stand in solidarity. May we be willing to listen without being defensive.

The voice of our brother’s blood cries out to us from the ground. May justice roll down like a river. Let us do what we must to tear down any dam constructed to block the flow of that river.

There is not much I can do to “tear down” the dams of injustice, in part, because I benefit so much from the pools that have gathered behind them. But at the very least, I can acknowledge the dams and some of the ways privilege has flowed my way because of the color of my skin.

Another invitation to examine this issue came just yesterday from Parker Palmer, the Quaker author, activist and teacher. He is a humble man, a wise elder and a gentle soul and his words moved me deeply, starting with the title of his essay, “Owning Up to my Toxic Biases.” I’ll just share a few bits here, but I highly recommend you take the time to read the entire piece.

Palmer begins with the words of a friend:

“Grant me the wisdom to see my own unconscious biases that continue to unintentionally and inadvertently make me complicit in this staggering rise of hate and callousness. May I never forget that hate and callousness have been as much part of this American experiment as joy, hope, and love. That while this experience may be new to my consciousness it has been a part of the lives of my fellow Americans who have lacked the access to money and power that come with privilege.”

Palmer goes on to reflect:

So, for the umpteenth time, I’m trying to come to terms with my own complicity in white privilege and the injustice and inhumanity that flow from it. When white people like me ignore or deny all that, it’s just another way of aiding and abetting it.

Isn’t the evidence clear-cut? A lot of things that are easy and safe for white folks are difficult or dangerous for people of color — from being pulled over for a broken taillight to trying to rent or buy a home in certain communities…

But my confession needs to go deeper than owning up to white privilege. Like many people of my race, I carry unconscious elements of white supremacy. If I want to help stem that bloody tide, I must become conscious of that fact.

No, I don’t belong to or support the KKK and its kin, whose beliefs and actions are evil to the core. But it’s a cop-out to equate white supremacy with its most toxic forms. Doing so takes the onus off people like me to come to terms with reality — our country’s and our own. How could a nation built in part on the enslavement of human beings not have a cultural substrate of white supremacy? How could white people rooted in that ground not be tainted by that toxicity?

If I look at myself closely and honestly, I find a form of white supremacy that’s subtle but pernicious. For a long time, I held an unacknowledged assumption that “white is normal,” that white ways are the “normal” ways.  All other ways are “exotic” at best, often “strange” and even “off-putting,” and sometimes “scary.”

Does all of this make me guilty of something sinister simply because I was born white? Of course not. No one is born guilty of anything. The guilt comes when I deny that being white gives me social advantages and crimps my capacity to see the world clearly and engage it honestly. Denial keeps me from owning my own arrogance, putting on corrective lenses, and fully joining the fight against the pestilence of white supremacy.

Is there any hope for white illusionists like me? As far as I’m concerned, this entire column is about hope — because hope opens up as soon as we gain self-awareness, confess our role in creating injustice, and reach deep for ways to release the better angels of our nature.

I love that phrase “white illusionist,” in part because it makes my own blindness more palatable and therefore easier to admit to and actively address. We can’t see what we aren’t told to look for, so when I look for “white supremacy” in my own life and actions, it’s difficult to see, but when intelligent, invested people pull back the curtain on the “illusion” of color-blindness most of white America hides behind, I am amazed at all the tricks in my subconscious that allow me to enjoy my life “as is.” While I may be consciously poking holes in those “dams of injustice,” I am unconsciously building them up and swimming in the overflow.

So what do I do about it, Palmer wonders?

I wonder about that too, but I think I know at least part of the answer.

1. Be more curious than defensive.

And if you’re curious, start investigating the questions. Look for authors, essayists and activists who will challenge your thinking. Join healthy conversations on the topic. If you’re a Tucker Carlson fan, I’m not saying you should go read Ta Nehisi Coates, but start seeking out authors on the right who are more open to a respectful dialogue on the subject. You might start with David French’s essay, “Why I Changed the Way I Write about Police Shootings.” If you’re a person of faith, or a white mom, try one of the essays of Jen Hatmaker on the subject, or watch her Today show video. If you’re interested in politics of the death penalty, read Bryan Stevenson. I’m currently being enlightened, challenged and disturbed by Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.

There is so much good content out there, but we need to seek it out and then we need to sit with it, especially when it makes us uncomfortable, or flies in the face of our own experience and what we believe to be the entire truth about ourselves, our nation, or our faith.

2. Be willing to speak up, but be humble.

I can’t think of anything more awkward to speak about than race and my own whiteness, so most of the time, I keep my mouth shut (unless I’m at home; my family hears about it probably more than they’d like). But I’m trying as humbly as I can to be a little braver, to apologize for stupid things I’ve said, or assumptions I’ve made. This blog is a step in that direction. Tim pointed out that most of the words in this essay aren’t my own, but I’m conscious of the fact that other, more educated people are speaking more eloquently on this topic. I have always admired, but rarely adhered to the maxim “If you can’t improve the conversation, remain silent.” In this moment, I’m mostly just trying to point out a couple of the conversations that are taking place.

3. Love, Love again, Love Better.

Every single day, Love yourself, love your neighbor, love the other, love the world in some real, tangible way. Do something that moves us closer to connection, to unity, to grace and forgiveness, even if only by a millimeter. If you can do it by a yard, that’s even better, but most days we aren’t hitting it out of the park. Palmer quotes Sikh lawyer, activist and filmmaker, Valerie Kaur, who advocates for Revolutionary Love, through the metaphor of mothering.

“Mothering, a capacity that exists within each of us, helps us redefine love, not just as emotion but as a form of sweet labor. It calls us to wonder about others, listen to their stories, respond to their needs. We employ many emotions in that labor: Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger is the force that protects it.

When we practice love beyond the threshold of the home, it has the potential to transform the world around us and within us. But love must be poured in all three directions to be revolutionary. Revolutionary Love is the choice to enter into labor — for others, for our opponents, for ourselves. I believe Revolutionary Love is the call of our times.”

 Amen, Valerie and thanks for saying it better and saying it for me.

 

 

bébé-chèvre“The Lame Goat”

You have seen a herd of goats

going down to the water.

 

The lame and dreamy goat

brings up the rear.

 

There are worried faces about that one,

but now they’re laughing,

because look, as they return,

that one is leading.

 

There are many different ways of knowing.

The lame goat’s kind is a branch

that traces back to the roots of presence.

 

Learn from the lame goat,

and lead the herd home.

 

From Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic.

If you ask anyone who knew me as a child, they will admit I was a late bloomer. My dad’s nickname for me was “Bumper;” I was always running into walls and doors. With the amount of spills I took running across the street, riding a bike, or even just walking down the hall, it sometimes seemed like a struggle just to stay on my own two feet. I’m guessing that’s why I am drawn to this poem.

So often, we dismiss the “lame goats,” the ones who bring up the rear and seem to be in their own world, but this poem reminds us that when we do, we may not have the right perspective. It takes time, and patience to see the whole picture and those are two things most of us have in short supply. The concrete visual imagery of this poem is a powerful reminder to have some patience and faith in the people and things that take a little more time. This is even a lesson we can apply to ourselves when we find ourselves falling behind! Everyone has value and everyone is ahead of the curve somewhere and at some time.

So have pity on the “lame goat” who lags behind, including this writer, who agonized about choosing such a silly poem for today! I wanted to offer something a little lighter than “The Last Supper,” but hope you don’t find it underwhelming.  Tomorrow, we’ll get back to some more serious literary work!

 

 

The other morning, I woke with Otis Redding playing in my mind, “You’ve got to try a little tenderness….” I had spent the night at my folks’ house and as I walked down the stairs, humming along, my dad laughed. That song had been in his head for the last couple days too.  Kismet, I guess, or the fact that we are both currently reading Barking to the Choir.  I’m guessing “Tenderness” is just about the only song Fr. Greg Boyle knows how to sing.

I am obsessed with this book. I gobble up story after story and then I put it down, hard, and walk away, not because it made me mad, but because it made me so damn GLAD.

I just want to cherish the feelings – of both surprise: “I’ve never thought of it that way,” and satisfaction: “I knew it all along!” I also put it down so that I can find my own response to his call. He says “Amen” to life in all its painful, poignant reality and his example demands that I find a corresponding, “Alleluia” within myself. To offer any less to this modern-day gospel feels sacrilegious.

I think I am beginning to understand how the early gospel began to spread and people became “Christians.” When the news is that good, that liberating, that healing, you can’t help but tell your family, friends, neighbors and even strangers about it. You want to jump up and down and say: Look! Taste! Touch! See how love and love and more love makes all the difference.  And in case you think I’m putting Fr. Greg on a pedestal, I’m not.  He’s only reminding us of the “original program,” as he puts it, which is simply the message of Jesus, which many of us seem to have forgotten.

So back to tenderness.

Tenderness is the key to it all, though it goes by many names: compassion, empathy, love.  Each of those words has its own nuance, but they all work on the same principle – the act of softening towards “the other,” so that some connection, healing, or relationship can be fostered. Tenderness, however, has a connotation of spontaneity, as if it’s something we can’t develop, or consciously create. Nonsense, Greg says.

Compassion and empathy have taken on clinical standing; they have been studied and analyzed to death with data. But tenderness? That kind of just wells up within us, right? It’s too soft, squishy, and personal to analyze, which is exactly why we should embrace it above the others, according to Greg.

Tenderness doesn’t just happen from your intellect; it’s your heart’s response in proximity to what is beautiful, vulnerable and beloved in our midst. The key to the “practice” of tenderness is to become familiar with what it feels like and know what brings it out in you. And once you know it, don’t run away from it; run towards it! Get comfortable with the uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling of tenderness.

Tenderness feels dangerous (I might get hurt by admitting how much I care!) It feels embarrassing (I might look like an idiot for welling up in tears!) It feels inefficient (who’s got time to stop and marvel? I’ve got things to do.) For all those reasons and more, we don’t allow ourselves to feel tender towards most things. It destabilizes our ego’s ability to judge quickly, efficiently and “correctly.”

But we all have our Achilles’ heel, the thing that just melts our hearts, even when we’ve got better things to do. Currently, mine happens to be my nieces and nephews, especially the little ones. I wish you could feel my heart leap when I spy one, or all of them in a room. I think my heart literally pirouettes in my chest as I bend down and open my arms and call their names and they come running to me for a heart-stopping, germ-sharing, laughter-filled embrace. I am not so foolish to think it will always be this way. They will grow up and grow out of love with me, but I will cherish these tender moments as long as I can, which is also why I keep pictures like these on my phone. When I’m feeling cranky and judgmental, I can find Instant Tenderness! (Snapchat filters are magical things at this age!)

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I also feel tenderness towards my own kids, toddlers of all kinds, some teenagers, and most teachers. Not the heart-skip-a-beat kind of tenderness, but a genuine softening towards their occasional negativity, bad attitude and tendency to see themselves as the victim of unfair authority figures. “I get it,” I want to say to them. “Let me get you a drink (milk, soda, or wine, as appropriate) and sit with you for a while until you feel more like yourself again.”

So the tender gospel of Barking to the Choir asks us to consider:

Where and for whom do you feel tenderness without effort, or reservation?

Maybe you’re not a kid person, but how about a newborn? (It’s one of the only places in our culture that men are allowed to display tenderness without shame!) Maybe a majestic animal species, newborn pandas, or packs of puppies. Maybe a telephone commercial with a grandmother brings you to tears? Cats must be the source of tenderness for millions of people in the world. Why else would they be watching those videos?

The next time you experience that rush of tenderness, whatever it is, feel what it feels like in your body, your heart, your face. Get to know that feeling, and then hold on to it, because that’s where “kinship” begins. As poet David Whyte writes, “Start close in,” a place where the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Start embracing the tenderness you feel naturally and then take it a degree further, one step at a time.

If my heart melts for my little ones, can I extend some measure of tenderness to the runny-nosed stranger’s child, crying in the grocery store line behind me? Can I ask my heart to skip a beat, and offer a smile to his parents, instead of judging their choices?  And once I can do that, can I extend it even a step further to the foster youth in my own town, the refugee child on a distant shore, the little ones on the border?  Can I eventually get to the heart-wide-open place where I begin to believe that there is no such thing as other people’s children?

Degree by degree, step by step, we expand our tender hearts until they include even our enemies. That is the mission and magic of Homeboy Industries.  Step by tender step, they move people from separation to solidarity to kinship.

Embracing tenderness, writes Jean Vanier, is the highest mark of spiritual maturity. It is not a sign of weakness, sentimentality, or femininity in a pejorative way. It is a sign of strength, character and mutuality.

I am strong and centered enough to allow you to destabilize me through Love.

I am secure enough to be softened and changed by you.

I do not lose me when you win back some of yourself through my tender gaze.

I hope you’ll find something that makes your heart melt this week and then I hope you will chose to find another and another, each one less likely than the last and that through the practice of tenderness, you will become the genesis of “kinship” in your own little corner of the world. This is critical work needed in the world today.

“If love is the answer, community is the context and tenderness is the methodology. Otherwise love stays in the head, or worse, hovers above it. Or it stays in the heart, which is never enough. For unless love becomes tenderness – the connective tissue of love – it never becomes transformational. The tender doesn’t happen tomorrow… only now, only today.”

Greg Boyle, Barking to the Choir 

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This week, Tim and I saw Fr. Greg Boyle speak about his new book, Barking to the Choir, but really, his speaking is simply storytelling. At the beginning, or end of a story, he might tee up the point he wanted you to get out of it, but not always. Sometimes, you just had to sit with the story and see what it brought up for you. The impact of his storytelling forced me to recognize how few stories I tell here on my blog any more. When the kids were small, I told a lot.  It’s easy to tell personal stories when your kids are young, but as they got older, I tried to respect their privacy. Their stories are theirs to tell, not mine, even if I am the one learning the lesson. But after a while, I got out of the story-telling habit and then I kind of lost the nerve.  There’s not much vulnerability involved in a story about how your three-year-old is driving you nuts, but grown-up stories, personal ones? It makes me sweat just thinking about it, so I rarely wander down that path.

But the stories Greg tells? Those are risky stories, heart-breaking accounts of abuse, foolishness, pride, stupidity, ignorance, frustration – much of it his own. Nobody comes out looking perfect, but everyone comes out beloved – understood, and held with tenderness. In all that they do, Homeboy Industries is working to create the “Kin-dom of God” here on Earth, a kin-dom where no one is left outside the circle of mercy, compassion, tenderness and connection, a place where everyone belongs.

One of my favorite lines Greg shared was that at Homeboy, they never use a bar to see how the homies are measuring up. They only ever hold up a mirror, so the homies can see who they truly are, and then help them to become that person. In the mirror, homies see who they are in the eyes of God, innocent, untouched, replete with unique skills, talents, personalities and experiences. In the mirror, they see how they are made in the image and likeness of the Divine and they begin to live out that truth.

I heard that line and could have wept.

Like almost everyone I know, I am a master at using “the bar” to see how I measure up and it seems like the world is always “raising the bar.” Honestly, it’s the only game in town: discover your shortcomings and fix them! According to “the bar” method, we are never finished, never satisfactory, never worthy of the title “Beloved.” But the stories in Barking to the Choir show over and over again that the only antidote to “the bar” is “the mirror,” the blessing and transformation that takes place when we see, and are seen, with the eyes of love.

Though I know the power of “the mirror” and use it as much as possible with my kids and husband, friends and family, when it comes to myself, I am quick to reach for “the bar” and the inevitable disappointment that comes along with it. I am so grateful for Tim, who counteracts my self-criticism, by patiently holding up the mirror for me, time and time again, even as recently as last week, when I found myself with it (the bar) in my hand, assessing my performance as a woman.

How had I been doing in the wife-department? Dismal

How had I shown up to our conversations? Distracted

How had our sex life been the last month? Dissatisfying

To be fair, we’d had a full house since mid-December with Kiko and Finn home from college, but on Saturday night, they were finally gone and Molly was out for the evening. For the first time in six weeks, we were alone… in our house… after dark… for longer than a half hour. We’d been anticipating this evening for so long! We drew a hot bath, lit candles, opened a bottle of wine. Let the romance ensue! We talked; we laughed; we relaxed and then… nothing happened, (at least on my part.)

Has anyone else experienced that awkward moment, where all systems are GO, but some critical part of your libido says, NO?

I stalled for a few moments in the cooling bath water, unable to find my way, emotionally or physically, to that place of intimacy and connectedness with my husband I had been longing for so badly. What was wrong with me?

Strangely enough, it was Fr. Greg Boyle who came to mind in that moment. Even after taking the time for romance, I still had “the bar” in my hand and was reviewing all the ways I hadn’t measured up as a woman, or wife. Those are pivotal identities in a healthy marriage, but they had taken second, or third (or last) place while I prioritized some other things going on in our lives. We need to do that sometimes, but after twenty-five years together, we know not to allow the “urgent, but not important” to run the show for too long. I also knew I was going to need some help letting  go, so I said to Tim:

“Hold up a mirror for me, love. Help me see myself through your eyes on a night like tonight. Who am I besides a mother, seeker, teacher, writer, worker, volunteer, cleaner, driver, household manager? Who am I when I’m just me?”

And through Tim’s words, I began to see a reflection of myself again, this time through the eyes of love.

I saw an Ali who surfs and swims and stand up paddleboards, for the sheer pleasure of water on her face and sun on her skin and strength in her shoulders.

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I saw an Ali who smiles often and laughs easily, who touches everyone she loves because she just can’t help herself.

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I saw an Ali who loves adventures and food and a good drink and isn’t so worried about the calories.

 

I saw an Ali who isn’t afraid of sensuality, who is learning to embrace her middle-aged body, while also appreciating her husband’s.

I saw an Ali who knows how to stop trying to measure up, so she can relax and find herself “beloved” again.

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I did not expect Greg Boyle (along with Tim of course) to be the one to solve my “roadblock” on Saturday night, though I think he’d be tickled by his presence there. But that’s the power of a great story. Not only does it enlighten you in the moment; it sticks with you for the long haul and shows up in radical places down the road.

My takeaway is this: When you need a better story, ask for it and when you hear a better story, believe it.

Allow it to disrupt the narrative you’ve been telling yourself, which probably features a bar you can never live up to.  Make sure the new story includes the mirror of “kin-ship,” grace, and compassion, so you can see yourself in all your beauty, femininity, masculinity, and vulnerability again. Even the great doubters claim, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” so find a mirror that shows you who you truly are in the eyes of Love. Believe it  and then become it.

And if you need some more inspiration, pick up a copy of Barking to the Choir, or get to a source of water and look inside – a natural mirror does wonders for your perspective!

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