Wednesday, April 21, 2021

We Shall Be Known By...what? I'm not so sure...

My heart hurts. I’m beginning to appreciate sadness enough to just name it up front, without blame outward or shame inward. My heart hurts. This Hurt hurts… 

I faithfully participated in a business meeting this morning, for the good of students and an institution in which I’ve invested years of my life. And we did our business as usual. As usual. I heard a colleague celebrating her baptism, made possible by another colleague and the tradition in which they(we) stand. I heard another colleague celebrating his entry into the Church of Rome, as he named it, alongside his family. I heard another colleague state plainly that a specialized religious leadership degree does not require coursework for intercultural or interreligious sensitivity today. There was immediate disruption of this (potential) exchange, “as that is a larger conversation for another time,” a fellow said, but I felt my silenced rebuttal land heavy in my heart. And then something broke open a bit in me. I realized that probably most of the colleagues there would have agreed with her, not with me. All morning, I sat as I always do with the celebrations I can celebrate and the statements with which I disagree whole-heartedly, noting the contradictions and irreconcilability that are larger than I can hold, that cannot be flattened easily into any compassionate resolution. I’ve done this for years, holding spaces and places for myself in a conviction in the larger human communion to breathe amidst an era of narrowing and polarization. This time, tears. My body aches. My heart hurts enough to allow it all to rise up in me, weeping…sadness...with no place it needs to go right now, except here, my processing, my holding(s). I suspect this is part of the Work needing to be done...

A gift/challenge here is my immersion this week in Beloved Community work (also hosted by this institution). I serve as a consultant to a Mentor leading a Doctor of Ministry cohort in this Beloved Community lineage of practice, thought, heritage. I’ve/we’ve been refining language of documents, resourcing students for their work as scholar-pastors in the church and world… Which
practically means I have also been gifted in receiving texts about the Chauvin trial and verdict arriving last night. I have been wrestling to--able to?--hold more expansive space for these colleagues outside and inside of this immediate institutional culture, for us all to be about transformative work across difference(s).

And yet...

None of any of that was spoken, named, invited into anything this morning, not even in prayer. It was like it didn’t exist.

My heart hurts, like so many hearts I’m now blessed to know, travel with, companion and encourage, honor, learn from... AND I felt alone. I felt isolated from hearts feeling deeply. I felt disoriented amidst the waves of grief (and their potential graces) clearly arriving for me here, now...

Significantly, these reflections had begun a little differently this morning, enjoying my cup of coffee, praying the rosary, then beginning to write before my CrossFit workout at 8 a.m. There’s a song that has been following me, of sorts, with both invitation and aversion, for probably 18 months. The original artists are a group I’ve loved for several years, MaMuse, a two-woman duo with folksy sound and heart-felt compassion flowing and being grounded in the earth. They have a choir, called the Thrive Choir, sing it in the YouTube clip available. I have several of MaMuse's albums, enjoying a shuffle of their artistry as I drive from place to place.

This song seems so very poignant today: "We Shall Be Known"...lyrics as follows, or listen to it here (Thrive choir cover, 3 min investment well worth the listen...):

We shall be known by the company we keep

By the ones who circle round to tend these fires

We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap

The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth

It is time now, it is time now that we thrive

It is time we lead ourselves into the well

It is time now, and what a time to be alive

In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love

In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love

I love the vocals of the song. I love the harmonies, the melody, its lyrical quality woven gently with a defiance or assertiveness that is also softening somehow. There’s a firmness to the song I love, and dislike, both at once. To be known by the ones who circle round to tend these fires? YES. I'm a circle-keeper/holder/learner. HearthKeeper is a name I treasure from 2013. I tend many fires. We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap the seeds of change from deep within the earth? YES. I'm a nature-girl, all around, becoming more and more attuned to co-creation with Nature, the wilding wisdom way...

But for me, I am
not known by the company I keepI keep company with lots of folks who are quite different from me in religion (many) and politics (less so, but some), racial-ethnic heritage (even less so, but some), and economics/class (probably least here, truthfully...which makes me think of Marx).  The company I keep in my day-job holds a history of a root-tradition within which I too stand, which I cannot relinquish with a sense of integrity. But this institutional community expresses itself more and more narrowly...insularly theologically, if globally assumed-to-be-expansive. I am not remotely aligned with these theologies, the rather triumphalist faith practices, more overtly-traditional norms of ‘community’ well-guarded by older white men and those who barter power with them. I remain because students who need most what I offer have to come to me--they have to take my course. 

I remember a progressive student coming into my office for support in a course she was struggling with and discernment whether the school was serving her journey well enough. How can you teach here? How can you stand it here? she asked me with deep frustration. I suppose I could have said, Because I have already surrendered, come to think of it, but I didn’t have that language yet. I smiled with her into her frustration, sharing a bit of my own journey that led me right here. I kept to myself that if the journey hadn’t been just as it was, I wouldn’t have been sitting with her right then. Ultimately, we discerned early formation and being a tenured-professor had way different risks for deep formation, and she did wind up transferring, with deep blessing.

But perhaps I should be known by these colleagues with whom I identify so little? In which case perhaps I need to wake up and leave said company? I’m sure some of those others with whom I travel would say that to me, would encourage me to leave.

Here's the rub for me...

I think the song creates such aversion in me because it’s too easy, and easily polarizable. There’s a whiff of what I’ve heard called liberal fundamentalism (basic gist: so progressive/urgent/wounded-angry-inside that the wounding of others for justice is justified). You're with us or against us, one might say. If you're not with us, you're complicit, others will say. I get that, even bow to that experience for so many today, the truths of both. Except my elders-teachers have shaped me to awaken to either/or thinking, if/then causal statements, that are lashed about in pain and grief today. Those are not the Way.

My heart hurts today because I'm convinced that some of us simply have to stop the polarizing tribalisms. Some of us have to learn to be with company nothing like us, who do not believe as we do, whose lives and politics are absolutely irreconcilable with our own. If we sing along that we shall be known by the company we a good thing...then aren’t we just staying in our silos? So...have I reached my limit? Am I done with living a different both/and into the worlds around me?

Reconsidering citizenship is underneath all of this, for me.

  • How do we face the pressuring judgment of others who encourage us to join only with those they find most comfort with, or those who are seeking change only as we/they see it?
  • How do we discern when it's just too fuckin' hard to hold the both/and, that it's simply time to BE with those who are sowing and reaping the seeds of change we CAN see?
  • But if that...if we are truly known by the company we keep...then where or how does any and all the violence end?
  • If we cannot hold the sacred dignity of every human being, even THEM, and yes, even those who refuse the dignity of all, then where/when does the polarization, the separation, the violence ever end?

Acceptance within, I can imagine hearing. Integrity is known from within, I can already tell myself.

But who cares when the tears come? When it all makes you cry, is that enough? When one's heart hurts so, what is to be done, known...?

I dunno...

Then the song ends with a great line, of course: In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love

Today, I simply have to ask... Does any one of us actually think he or she is leading in love? And if she/he/they think they are leading in Love, is she/he/are they willing to eventually come to know how very deluded each of us is right now about that, in this moment? [The unhealed, sad-angry but impish part of me then wants to know, “And can I be there to see it happen to them?” (not to myself, of course).]

Which sits in utter contradiction with Love Upholding All That Is... I sat with a friend this past week, both of us finding ourselves listening to some questions about when Love begins, how it begins, how/if we know. I won’t have space/time today to give much of that richness voice, but it became apparent to me that while there
are moments in which we experience when love begins, and there are moments when we experience when love ends... is no less true to say that Love Simply IS. It is what upholds everything. It is, whether we know it or not. It opens and holds and creates and invites, whether we participate in it or not. We get to participate, my friend would say. We get to practice and learn and deepen in Love…

...with the company we keep, I guess.

So it ends for today... I got nothin'... No tidy integration... No clarity, really... Except now my sadness is more bearable.

There's that.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Blessed Un-Idolatrous Easter, All Who Celebrate

Well over ten years ago, I had a dream in which a new friend from NYC--a rabbi--and a nearby community’s spiritual teacher--a lama--figured highly. The three of us were discussing whatever we were discussing, and I remember saying “He is risen. He is risen indeed. But what does that really mean today anyway?” Then I woke up, of course, so I never got to hear what either of them said. The friendship with this rabbi was new enough that I wasn’t sure I could just reach out to share such a dream, but throwing caution to the wind, I did. A short note, with an honoring of the dream, the question, and my own wonderment to listen more deeply to whatever might arise in response. Blessings upon blessing, this initial exchange has now created an intimate listening ritual for Easter mornings. I get to write a letter pondering the same question, this year. This year later. Every years. These many years later… These words here are not this year’s letter, but this year’s letter has popped some new connections, new wonderment.

Additionally, you may wonder what in the world any of this has to do with
reconsidering citizenship. Fair point. The wisdom of the founders proclaimed a separation of church and state, which has ironically insured that all generations afterward would have to wrestle with religion or religious devotion in civic expressions. With a proclamation of separation, any appearance of interconnection or reliance necessarily comes into the courts--of public opinion, surely, but also state, federal and Supreme Courts. In contrast to Europe, let’s say, in which there is no separation of church/state (for admittedly much longer historical trajectories), that has resulted in very little Christian piety within the public spheres there at all. [One of my favorite early teachers, Soren Kierkegaard, predicted this in his homeland of Denmark, writing innumerable volumes/tractates to demonstrate his view that a "civilized" or civic-aligned Christianity was not actually Christianity]. Our current mixture of religion and politics in these United States is particularly toxic, especially white Protestant Christianity of conservative-Evangelical-fundamentalist streams. I write as a white, Presbyterian clergywoman-seminary professor in deep lament for the imprisonment and confinement of my own root-tradition’s wisdom, bastardized with Empire and white supremacy. I refuse to relinquish the adjective Christian to describe myself--I am rooted and ordained to leadership in this tradition beyond my capacity to depart it. But I do not find much spiritual nourishment amongst white Protestant Christians these days. Some of that is my own anger-baggage, my inability to receive amidst deep wounds as a woman-awakened to the deep abandonment of the feminine in Christian traditions; but some of it is because the decline happening in my root tradition needs to happen for rebirth and new life to have any meaning, any contribution to life sustainable and available to all. This year, in my own journeying, an important shift emerges in the liturgical refrain that will be proclaimed in living rooms/live-streamed sanctuary services across the world. He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Surprisingly, the gift of this Holy Week/Eastertide for me can be received because of a new practice I’m exploring, in a new circley-group of practice-friends called Way of the Rose. Reliant upon words centered in maiden-mother-crone, with a rosary crafted in juicy-feminine-earthing-wisdom just for me by another in the community, I am now into my second novena. I aim to attend one rosary meeting a week, by Zoom, but most mornings find me praying the rosary. Without a Catholic bone in my body. Peace-church, Anabaptist DNA, persecuted by the Catholics perhaps, but no Catholicism welcome, really. Thanks anyway. Just as there is no causal path from practice to insight--our actions do not create the insight(s)--there is no honest way for me to track, for you, the movement and the holding spaces that seem to be finding me here. For these two days, however, Holy Saturday & Easter morn, the description for the first of the Glorious Mysteries, the Resurrection, can structure a bit of the liminal space in which I find myself. It's offered in The Way of the Rose: the Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, bearing witness to the Story, yes, but what I will eventually call the Story surrounding the version of the story I/many of us have inherited. 

The Resurrection, (first of the Glorious Mysteries): “Following an ancient pattern whereby a slain god is resurrected by a mother or a lover, Mary Magdalene observes a sacred vigil at Jesus’s tomb. On the third day, he appears to her at last. When she tells the other disciples, they refuse to believe her.”

This points in several directions I want to go here, all at once, but I will honor the order of the story for this morning, inviting you to trust me with where we land in Easter morning's liturgical refrain...

Following an ancient pattern... When you are willing to dive deeply into the centuries of wisdom hidden in unexpected places across the earth--different traditions than your own, different cultures than what you know, different geographies than you’ve had to survive in--you begin to encounter patterns that feel familiar to some of your own. One of the women I’ve gotten to learn with, in another root community, WWfaC, likes to name this patterning as fractals. A geometric pattern that repeats itself in seemingly infinitely new ways within our world(s). She loves to look for these patterns, resonating in unexpected places.

When I first took a deep dive into the story of Ereshkigal/Inanna, I encountered the fractal of resurrection in an unexpected place. In this mythological stream of human thought, the Queen of Heaven, Inanna, decides to visit her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, who is mourning, even enraged, at the loss of her husband/consort. Without recounting the whole story, Inanna is left on a post to die for three days. Until companions from the worlds above come to save her, resurrect her. Life, death, rebirth into new life. Repeat. Following an ancient pattern.

The first encounter with a familiar pattern in a completely different stream of wisdom usually creates overwhelming dissonance for people of faith. Or people of Christian faith I have known in my years, within our modern-postmodern capitalistic worldviews. Most of us have spent an incredible amount of time and effort in our heads, aligning and reconciling sacred things with a literate tradition rooted in Scripture and the Christian tradition we know best. Defenses are brought against any ‘familiar pattern’ experienced elsewhere, seeking then what is distinctive, unique, ‘only’ about our own tradition. C.S. Lewis’s  begrudging kneeling before God in his Magdalen College office (nice touch there, Magdalen/e) led him on the journey of apologetics for the utter plausibility of Christianity’s historic gift. This ancient pattern became Real in historical time in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The distinctiveness of Christianity is bringing this pattern to life in a man’s body, born and raised from the dead. Given the idolatry of rationality in our particular era, of course this would be the argument expressed for this ancient pattern. We worship the logical, the scientifically supportable, the reasonable within a materialistic, functionalist capitalistic society.

Does this mean I no longer believe in the Resurrection? The bodily Rising of this Jew from Nazareth? Of course not. I am a Reformed (Presbyterian) Christian standing the long line of my own historic tradition, the architecture and life I understand only within the bodily resurrection proclaimed. But I am curious about this human drive for the ‘only’ or the ‘unique’, the distinctive therefore for it to be True. That touches some new things in my journey of awakening in these days...more about that below. Why doesn’t someone make the argument that because it follows this ancient pattern, it must therefore be True? Why must Christians fear or defend from being a part of this ancient pattern? Why the dissociating from ancient human mythological wisdom(s)?

A slain god is resurrected by a mother or a lover. This sentence in the description will touch the patriarchal wound in most of our bodies, I’ll guess. Some will erupt into complete contradiction, insisting that the Father raised the Son into new life. Some will simply be surprised, quietly watching the argument unfold with a strange sense of hope or expectation. Others will begin to say, “It’s about fuckin’ time.” Finally, the Feminine is finding some voice, presence, balance in our power-abusive world. Today I see it with new eyes within the relationship of anger and grief: this sentence touches deep grief in many of us about which we cannot begin to become conscious...yet. The (un)necessary separation from the mother (esp for boys, to become manly).  The enmeshment with the mother (esp for girls, hoping to ease their mother’s pains). A mother’s relinquishment of herSelf because that’s what mothering always seemed to require. Or maybe the defensiveness or contradiction will arise because of the “resurrected by a lover” implication. Our bodies are diffuse with wounds of not being enough for that lover (who left me/broke up with me), of yearning for a lover (who has never seemed to arrive), or mourning the loss of a lover (to death). Mother and lover are powerful words, but rarely do they find much traction in patriarchal religious traditions more familiar with Almighty God, and God the Father. To the bereft Loss for us all.

A woman observes a sacred vigil at the tomb. He appears to her at last. This retelling of the women who stayed, the women who were faithful in death, has been an important part of my own coming to voice, my own awakening to women’s experience in this sacred Story. I don’t want to malign or underestimate its continued importance for me, for others. Yet the yardstick or focus that denies the Feminine still remains the central hub of the Story. The tomb (where He lies). He appears… This retelling of the Story that focuses on the women’s vigils, the women’s faithfulness, is nice and all, but it’s no longer enough for me. I will argue it's no longer enough even for us, eventually.

When she tells the other disciples, they refuse to believe her. An entire chapter could explore all the nuances of this sentence, but for now, simply a nod to the familiar. A refusal to listen, to hear, to trust the experience of a woman, of an ‘other.’. The mandate felt within the woman with such incredible news to speak to those who will not believe her. The ‘other’ disciples. Here is a fingernail sketch of much human community today. We live unthinkingly in imbalances of who we listen to and why. We listen for comfort, for confirmation, to not appear foolish by believing something untrue. It’s harder and harder to listen to what is, uncertain as we are about what is, really. Then we live in a weariness, sometimes even a relinquishment, of our personal experience because they won’t believe me anyway. Or I don’t know how to align or reconcile my experience(s) with those in power, those in authority who must be in the know. Today’s complexities then lead some to fabrications of experiences so to be heard, believed, which then results in less and less capacity to trust. This dynamic here at this first of the Glorious Mysteries is so very familiar, then or today, matters little.

So where does He is Risen! He is Risen indeed! land amidst this exploration…?

First I’ll say celebration, but not into idolatry. The bodily Resurrection of this Jesus of Nazareth remains a singular event in that he came into this world as himSelf, died, and rose again, giving voice and energy in historical time to an ancient pattern at the essence of being human-divine. Birth, life, death, rebirth into new life is the signature co-creative pattern within Earth & all her Heavens. Why shouldn’t it play out in a human body? albeit not as we try to grasp, control, conceive it.

Jesus has become an idolatrous center for so much of contemporary Christian devotion, with attention and worship I’d guess he never welcomed nor wanted. He relinquished divinity, thereby embodying it, to invite us into it. I don’t not believe in Jesus, in other words. My sense of Him is so strong that to honor him and his relinquishment of divinity/embodiment of divinity requires these words, this reminder that Jesus himSelf was never the point...He is the Path, his life-death-resurrection is the Way, held with forgotten human beings who shaped him, created life with him, unnamed and unknown. Christians needing their certainty will move right to Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, named in the Gospel of John. No one comes to the Father except through me. But we Christians confuse the finger pointing the Way with the Way itself...which is so very human (as Buddhists would smile and nod, saying). I don’t argue with folks here, because it’s not a rational discussion that will open the heart to the mysteries beckoning so many of us today. If this doesn’t beckon to you, deep bow to you and just let it go.

Ironically, it is the insisted singularity of Jesus in this fashion that now pushes me further and further out of Christian liturgies. Again, not for reasons of disbelief but for reasons of alignment with and integrity in the ancient sacred pattern in its entirety, the Wholeness that is missing. The holding-context of the Feminine--or Divine Animacy, a phrase used by Sophie Strand I hope to explore more--is always missing, never spoken or allowed to speak, to BE. Or She's added on, with the focus still on the man at the center (be he God or Jesus or…). So I’m done with the dissociating, the analytical surgeries of human interconnection.

The Story takes hold of me in its breathless Wholeness today, for which I am indescribably Thankful, even as it therefore makes me lonely and sometimes angry within “my own traditional community(ies).” The whole ancient pattern at the essence of being human-divine can only live and breathe in the world today if and when we retell the Story as it happened, not as a declining institution of church tells it. 

What do I mean?

Live into the Mysteries with me, even just briefly… (most a paraphrase from The Way of the Rose, by Perdita Finn and Clark Strand). The Joyous Mysteries: Annunciation. A woman had to consent for the man to be born. Visitation. Two women had to hold the mysteries together, impossible to understand but so clear within them both. Nativity. In a cave, not unlike a grotto, a woman goes into labor, bearing a boy-child. Goddess drenched symbolism, never spoken in Christian liturgies. Presentation. Holy mysteries can be seen, by those with the Gifts of Seeing--in this case, an older man and an older woman. The mother’s heart will be pierced, we learn. Finding. A mother searches for her young son, left behind at the Temple. She finds, and takes him with her. The Sorrowful Mysteries: Agony in the Garden. Aloneness, abandonment. Scourging at the Pillar. “Just as the land is furrowed by plows and the beasts are beaten into submission, the body of Mary’s child is scourged. In the name of empire. Crowning with Thorns. The central mystery of the entire rosary. This body is mocked by those still fearful of the power represented. Red robe and a reed for a scepter--each an ancient symbol of the goddess. Carrying of the Cross. No one intervenes. A bystander assumes the weight of the cross. Crucifixion. “The tree that once stood at the center of devotion to the Mother has been stripped of life and made an instrument of execution instead. Mary’s son’s body is lowered into her arms.” The Glorious Mysteries. Resurrection. Following an ancient pattern…and all that is already named above. Ascension. The ceaseless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that includes all life on Earth is completed as Mary’s son surrenders, ascends. Descent of the Holy Spirit. The disciples pray for nine days with Mary Magdalene, after the Ascension. A mighty wind, the Holy Spirit--ruach, feminine--descends, often portrayed by a dove, another sign of the Goddess. Assumption. “The body of the Great Mother is the body of the Earth and the body of the Heavens, the body of all that is.” Coronation. “In the final mystery of the rosary, Our Lady is crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth. … Life is a journey that circles back to where it started.”

The unquestioned assumption that Jesus's Resurrection is the Christian mystery, the pivotal event of my Root Tradition, is (of course) a slanted Truth. The entire Story is rarely held, honored, or told fully as the Mysteries above show. Jesus’s name is not named once, intentionally, but the Story interconnects us all without... He is Risen is part of the story--blessedly--but it is not THE story, no matter how desperately (anymore) the self-sufficient man wants it to be so. The church’s idolatry of this Name blinds it to the whole Story--a woman’s consent, a community’s formation, the suffering of Empire, the disconnection of choosing religious tradition over deep spiritual intimacy with one another, separation from self-other-Earth, and so much more… I find myself aching for what Emily Dickinson knew so well…

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

When and how, I continue to pray and ask, will all the Story be told and remembered in its entirety, in its balancing Wholeness? The Truth must dazzle gradually...I know...but for how long will so many of us hide our eyes and ears from the Whole? The interconnection of being human underneath and beyond ‘traditioning’? When can we hold our sacred traditions a little more loosely, so to see one another a lot more generously?

I will assist in songleading in our Easter service tomorrow, delighted to do so, but I can no longer hear He is Risen as most congregational members profess it and will celebrate it... 

He is Risen. No longer can I not hear the aching fear of the self-sufficient man, needing to be idolized in a power-over world he and we have co-created.

He is Risen. No longer can I not hear the abuse of this sacred mystery as the only one, positioned at the heart of (white) Christianity to worship a man who in contrast relinquished divinity so to become himSelf

He is Risen. He is Risen indeed! No longer can I not hear the grasping attempts to be distinct-from, dissociated-within the rest of the ancient patterns of human-divine becoming. It’s so white when my community says it after all...what might be called 'segregationist habits of mind' (Willie Jennings, After Whiteness)

Tomorrow, when my (husband's) community celebrates this sacred mystery with all the forms so familiar to so many, I don’t think I can recite aloud He is Risen. He is Risen indeed, though He is, and blessed be for that mystery, among so many. A deeper Story surrounding this version or this story, a Story rooted in Wholeness and enveloping the Earth/Heavens has begun to claim me. Not in contrast or competition, not in contradiction but addition, welcome, expansive hospitality. Because it’s not about gender or ideology or any of the things we distract ourselves with to remain in our fears, our wounds. need not be either/or. That is not the way of Our Lady anyway, our dear One, Sacred Mother.

No, tomorrow, because of these words today, I finally know how to be alongside my pastor-husband, preaching and leading, while I lead in song…

He is Risen. She is Rising indeed.

Truthfully? I think Jesus is relieved. How could he have imagined, or desired, all that has been done in his Name? How could it not be lonely to be the lone, sole-soul Man purported to save the world? Particularly as his entire Heart-Body-Spirit, within the dance of the Trinity, is for what a mentor-friend called relationality, the interconnection of all things? So let us step out of the Jesus idolatries all around, shall we? Blessed Un-Idolatrous Easter to all those who celebrate this mystery tomorrow, today.

[Much gratitude to gifted spirit-friends of many, many years now, and to new traveling companions in Awakening Women (a shakti-oriented community founded by Chameli Ardagh), the Way of the Rose (the circley-rosary friends community), and Fire&Water Leadership/Rites of Passage (a diverse circle-way community). Truly, without all these old/new spirit-friends willing to press into new forms, new awarenesses, new encounters with old wounds--many staying in their own experience of the sacred that does not match this one!--without them, I would not be able to trust these words pouring forth…]

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Accountability, Un-Anti-Anything, and Equanimity...How?

Accountability. "The fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility."  Or "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions." At least those are the definitions that arise with a quick search, feeling my way into it with an early morning cup of coffee. Then another energy arose that seems to want to dance with the word accountability. Something I read on a friend-teacher’s page recently: The issue with the term anti-racist is that it comes from the wound. A healed person wouldn’t claim anti-anything. They would stand for something. I have been sitting with this dancing-tension within me here--both deeply appreciated and welcoming with intention for the well-being of the Whole. Even so, I suspect this posting is gonna get me in trouble. I pray it is good trouble. Or at least good enough for today.

A bit of context out of which this dance arises then… Circle-way has an ethos and a grounding in a different way of being that I both had to re-encounter in my decades of higher education and that somehow we’ve/I’ve yet always known within the human genome. Different communities focus on different aspects of it, but it’s an archetypal energy that nourishes, holds, challenges (nurture-with-rigor, one community names it), protects, invites. No one is at the Center. At least none of us is. Some say all voices are equal here, while others say all voices contribute. I tend to find the latter more honest, the former still a good ideal we are striving toward. I imagine this way of being human together, this way of gathering, originated around the fire when everyone who sat in the circle knew that the circle of the Whole depended upon each and all to survive. At the very least, it’s an archetypal energy of ancient re-emergence today, calling forth a forgotten way to be human together. And that we’re not fully human until we are human together.

But given its origins, it’s also a small-size wisdom-technology. Today is incredibly complicated in a multicultural, complexly-economic global community of a size too big to gather into a circle the way we are remembering. And we live in a world measured and divided by multiple yard-sticks of evaluation, cross-cultural and globally diverse. I, at least, am living in a market-economy world often measured by a yardstick conceived by what is white and male (says this friend-teacher, in her new book, forthcoming). So we cannot call the global circle, per se, but we
can invoke the archetypal energy of Circle. We can learn from the ethos and live from/through its Grounding(s). 

So that’s a fingernail-sized glimpse of the context in which this tension between accountability and un-anti-anything, my inadequate short-hand for a healed person wouldn’t be anti-anything; they would stand for something. There is something here at the heart of this tension that feels contradictory inside of me, which is what usually brings me to this blog-space to think aloud, to be seen thinking aloud, to welcome others' questions and shared vulnerabilities.

One of my root communities today--Women Writing for (a) Change--has a marvelous practice for small group process, but also for practicing the ethos of the Circle as a whole: invitation, not obligation. It has many expressions throughout an evening’s writing circle, but the one in small group is the most germane here. What kind of feedback do you want? There is a list that’s been created over the years, including Heart/Gut, One True Thing, Silent Witness, or even my favorite, Standing Ovation (for having done the writing at all!). Having held these circles for years now, I always love it when I can hear the standing ovation from a small group in its confidential space, the sound traveling clearly into the large-circle room I sit in during those times. Some woman has just asked for her community to cheer her on. Love it. Craft feedback is also an option, for more polished pieces--this being the kind of feedback most often found in English classrooms around the nation. But for the most part, few writers ask for Craft, particularly if the piece is drafted, musing, reflective, curious.  Additionally, red pens are not really all that welcome in a WWfaC circle. Too many bad experiences from the English teacher who squashed a student’s creative attempts. In circle-language, craft feedback doesn’t often match the ethos of equanimity and invitation well suited to the purposes of those circles: coming to voice and creative experimentation, expression. So for years now, I’ve lived into the practice of invitation, not obligation in as many contexts as would welcome it, well aware of its liberating and healing impact in areas within and beyond the writing circle.

I often find myself wondering how/if invitation not obligation could further open civic discourse to come from healing/healed spaces within us each/all, particularly in tender streams in our public spaces these days--anti-racist work, whose advocacy for justice is so needed today; diversity-equity-inclusion work in broader frames (including all PoC and LGBTQ+ persons), being intentional about the question “Diverse compared to what/whom?” that Resmaa Menakem invites (Notice the Rage, Notice the Silence); and various religious-political discussions amidst declining/refusing-to-grieve traditions and polarizing/refusing-to-grieve politics. There is a freedom and assurance at the heart of this phrase, this practice of invitation, that seems so very absent in much of the discourses I’ve just named.

What does it mean, and feel like, to speak from invitation-not-obligation, in a world where so many of us seem to need to be held accountable to the experiences of others we cannot see or do not know? What does it feel like to be spoken to within invitation, not obligation? Does accountability have a place within the energies of Circle, and if so, how/where?

[A quick shorthand in my own experiences, from what I know so far, and why I'm invested in spending the time and energies to explore all I am here. Speaking from in this practice feels like freedom from responsibility for others' choices, for their experiences, for-their-anything. I can invite to hear more, to bear witness, to be awakened by their words, but I'm not responsible for them. I can also leave whatever does not touch me in the Center, as a gift for others. I am responsible for receiving my own feelings/sensations, for my own actions, for offering what I can and asking for what I need. In my (wordless?) bearing witness, I am honoring the others' own wisdom, gifts, and resources to ask for what they need and offer what they can. Trust and shared vulnerability is the currency here. Being spoken to within this practice feels like, well, an invitation--freedom to accept, freedom to decline; freedom to pause and consider what I feel, because the speaker appears to trust and respect my voice, my words, my experience and desires to learn more for...themselves? their own purposes? The interactions will communicate that further, within Circle, within the sacred gaze of the Whole. And yes, accountability therefore has a cherished space within the energies of Circle, though it is differently configured than most of us are familiar with...self-accountability embeds within invitation-not-obligation, which breathes the ethos of equanimity of Circle. Arguably, this is the summary of all I want to say, written after a couple hours of word-smithing my own process in what follows...!]

Accountability: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Right here, we could seem to be at an impasse. Accountability is rooted in obligation, a sense of responsibility-for. Circle, on the other hand, seems to welcome invitation, not obligation. Equanimity, not expertise or sharing information, per se. Wondering, curiosity, not knowledge or power. 

Does this mean we are not accountable to one another, to the whole? Of course not. Accountability is a practical world notion and necessity for us all. Government needs to be held accountable for how it spends taxpayers’ monies. Perpetrators of crimes need to be held accountable for their actions, for society to protect the innocent, the vulnerable, the marginalized. Power needs to be held accountable in Grace, Mercy, even that seemingly impossible yearning for Justice. I dispute none of this. But standing in the archetypal energies of Circle challenges this notion of accountability in some really interesting ways. 

For one, accountable to whom? is an interesting angle with which to begin. To the other? To self? To the powerful (high status in money, intellect/expertise…)? To marginalized peoples? To the vulnerable? Ask yourself the question then--to whom/what am I most accountable? How do you discern/decide? So much of our overculture (Clarissa Pinkola Estes) suggests structures of accountability within terms like certification, accreditation, corporate work and the like. We live accountable to licenses and job descriptions and our superiors’ oversight in institutional organization charts. All of which shapes a power-over habit of mind--we are to be held accountable by those with the most power, or we are responsible to hold accountable those we perceive with less power. The human ego loves this game, and many of us play it elegantly well. Particularly in academic discourses, this runs rampant with call-out-culture--exposing blind spots in public ways, playing the accountability-mutuality game we’ve learned in our higher or educational environments. We jockey for who knows more and who gets to hold the other accountable. We soften it with language like mutuality and ‘for the good of the whole,’ but power-over remains at the center, with judgments arising from our ‘greater experience’ or expertise. By the yardsticks we’ve been shaped by, in… In contrast, a beautiful invitation for 'call-in-culture' can be found in a NYTimes piece on Professor Loretta J. Ross, who crafts/explores this tension-shift in her course at Smith College. "What If Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?"

Accountability to what…? seems to bring more clarity to me about my own dissonance. I've learned to be accountable first to my own body-cues and sensations...

A person’s communication style and word-choice (whether they’re conscious of it or not) will hint at what yardstick(s) they are using to interact with me (whether intentionally or not). I’ve learned to look for the emotional cues and the energetic charges that come in me with others’ word-choices. When I feel a power-positioning language, often experienced with someone playing the academic political game with me, I know to expect within me sensations of dissonance, discomfort, anger at an imposed presumption, and an urge to defend myself against...whatever I perceive is coming at me in a guise of ‘community’ but with language of ‘power-over.’ I've lived in higher education to be quite sensitized to this, both for my own protection and for the danger of reactivity here. I've experienced this in both higher ed and professedly circle-way communities. [note: All of this is intentionally named as my feeling/experience language; others may not be playing that game at all, in their experience of an interaction, but I feel what rises in me, and am most healthy when I honor it within…] These sensations are actually really helpful body-cues that while not desirable or pleasant per se, are so very familiar to me now. Sometimes I ‘bite the hook’ as Pema Chodron would say, but most times anymore, I’m getting better at pausing, allowing, getting curious, and then learning...bringing words to life for myself that align with what I want to live into the world, which is Circle.

Like yesterday, when a white woman whom I am enjoying getting to know used language in a public forum that felt like power-over, touching my higher-ed wound. Ironically, it was in response to a piece on proportionate response in academic/conceptual violence. She also assumed an assertiveness that I did not experience as inviting, more a demand/command, which then touched my distrust and suspicion.

Like today, as I am blessed and thankful to explore this tension I feel here with a day of writing and receiving. 

For this case, it comes back to my deep experience and appreciation of invitation-not-obligation and the gentle question within that ethos of equanimity: what kind of feedback do you want? When someone approaches with a deep respect of me, also a demonstrated trust that I am doing my own work, that I am on a beautiful sacred journey, they invite me with a question more than a statement. Are you curious to have a conversation with me about your writing? Or even better, they invite me into a question that arose within themselves, instigated by me or something I’ve said/written. Something they now want to ask, something they are struggling with. In such invitation, there is a shared vulnerability at the heart of the communication, and we are automatically co-listeners, co-learners, peers, within an ethos of equanimity that rests at the heart of Circle. This invitational approach is their ante-up into the deepening-sacred-listening--they show me they are willing to be seen in their own journey. This rarely happens in higher education, and I dare say, in much liberal social justice advocacy work. Instead, I was asked to join into a conversation about accountability and mutuality, to learn of my blind-sides (which I of course have and am always curious-willing to know more as I go, though I'm often too willing to go into discomfort as a sense of penance and shared suffering). She told me to set up an appointment after a certain date with the link for the online calendar. All my body cues arrived, just as expected for a seminary professor attuned to power-over games. I've let the sensations simmer, welcoming the percolations and the bemusement, the irritations and the sadnesses rest in my cells for a while.

My journey with this simple communication has been so very informative, instructive, and fascinating. My inner life and the stories I create for myself are engrossing, predictable, and even exhausting before they ever reach the light of day, or the electrons of computer-print-prose. I won’t lengthen this by going into detail, but I’ve realized that so much of the ‘reaching out for accountability’ I see and sometimes receive seems to come from a power-over place. It’s ego habit, and it’s what social-justice-advocacy work requires today, at least if you don’t want to be accused of being complicit. Especially between white people who haven't figured out how to hold the horrors of white supremacy and rest in the divine order of things in who they are as white persons today. (see previous post). This is what I understand as the anti-ness my teacher-friend challenges with her own words.

Having clearly spent my energies here, I will say that usually, in much contrast, I don’t argue overly much with this whole accountability dynamic. Not because I don’t care about it. Not because it’s not necessary or valuable. Not because of my own privilege, which I know is great. I don’t participate in it very much anymore because more often than not, the yardsticks we’ve inherited are at the Center of it. You can tell when your body responds with an energy of protection. When someone uses language that judges your work before asking if you want feedback, or language that seems to position power-over/under in some fashion. Even assertiveness, while valuable, is a cue for me. I may or may not accept the invitation to conversation, here in the end. These reflections may be gift enough for me, instigated by the communication received.

Because as painful as it may be to say or be heard saying, I’d rather practice the self-accountability of the Circle, live fragilely/flawedly into the ethos of equanimity that trusts you for your journey, trusts that you are right where you need to be for your sacred journey, and the best thing I can do is bear witness, give you a standing ovation for showing up as you are. I want to be in this for the long-haul. If I am intent upon living-Circle, learning more and more to be Circle where I am, the power of invitation-not-obligation compels a much greater peaceableness, a curiosity with what will happen next for which I am not solely or remotely responsible. I am practicing my trust of that person's work. I am demonstrating a willingness to be present in actions/work that I may find painful, but I commit to be alongside regardless. I am responsible only for my own actions, and for owning my place at the rim of every circle. We co-create the space together, so I am responsible for my part, but also for living into equanimity. But that’s it. I’m not responsible for another’s actions, nor for their journey into deepening awareness or even self-transformation. Bearing witness is sacred privilege enough, in the flows of Circle I know and have been blessed to receive.

So I’ve landed where I know how and what to be-with in the communication that arrived for me to welcome and digest yesterday. I’m curious what got touched such that she/he/they were compelled to reach out to ‘hold me accountable.’ What is that energy living in them? There’s beautiful sacred energy there, after all...and it will be used for the good of the Whole if/when we enter into a shared vulnerability and ethos of equanimity. Not in a judgmental or fearful way, for either of us. Neither in a shaming or guilting way either, though so much of the overculture feeds on pitting one of us over the other. No, I’m curious what energy is in the other, while I tend to what energy is within me. When someone reaches out to me to invite me to a deeper sense of accountability, I vow to welcome their questions (clearly, given the verbiage here!) and I’m curious what touched something in them such that they were compelled to reach out for greater accountability in me…? If they haven’t done the work to know what got touched in them, then neither of us is in a place to have the healing/healed conversation. Because then we’re not both in Circle; we’re straddling the intersection, holding onto a past familiarity of anti-woundedness that does not serve the Whole well today.

The bemused ironies here are of course not to be missed. My words into public blog-spaces almost beg this kind of interaction. Most folks write a blog to begin to craft a public space, build a readership, and engage public discourse on social media. Never been my purpose. I'm not interested in that pathway, for myself. I write/speak in these posts to reflect and wrestle with my experience, what I’m learning, and sometimes to honor with whom I’m learning. I'm aware that many of my school's alums serve in leadership roles in small-rural areas, often enthralled with Trump/ism. I’m interested in inviting and demonstrating a different way to process. I'm wanting readers to enter into my process with me, into the practices that find me, and ultimately to find their own versions of what they’re drawn to within more Circle ethos than before. Rarely do I enter into the worlds of Should--this is what our world needs; or that is how peace will be earned, etc.--simply because that’s not what this work is about for me. That’s expertise/accountability culture, not Circle wondering and inviting. 

I do yearn to lean into greater trust of those around me, even as I enter into more diverse communities with deeper and deeper pain, wounds, suffering. I know that I/my words will be a lightning rod of these ‘reaching outs’ and worse, ‘lashing outs’ given the woundedness of our public discourses today. I'll need to be listening gently to my own bodycues in how long and whether I remain in this sharing of my work, my process. But at least for now I’ve walked this integrative path to the practice of exploring un-anti-anything. Circle invites invitation, not obligation, which offers a freedom I can recommend to those I love, and those I have yet to love.

Instead of positioning against, or anti-anything, then... What do I stand for? [Circle, invitation-not-obligation, practicing and welcoming missteps and more]. What do you stand for? [fill in the blank...then practice and risk toward that...] How are you being responsible to that in your journey? How may we bear witness...even give you a standing ovation?

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