Beyond Belief: #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn

BlackLivesUU

We believe that hundreds of UU churches signaling to their own members and to the larger community that “our faith takes racism seriously, especially within our own walls” will push our faith toward the beloved community we all seek.

Black Lives of UU

On Sunday, my Unitarian Universalist congregation participated in the first #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn. This began as a call to action by Black Lives of UU for congregations around the country the dedicate one day of services to teaching about racism and white supremacy. Our worship team took the charge seriously, shifting not only the content of the service but the very structure of how we gather together. A new seating arrangement brought everyone face-to-face. Without the familiar printed order of service to guide us, we watched videos of anti-racist leaders like Tricia Rose, and worshiped in the company of art and music by people of color. Most notably, our pastors made unflinching use of the term “white supremacy.”

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Flushed and Fleshed

Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

So we stand in the low sun and try to flush out need with questions. As if need is the fat, slithering shush roiling the fallen leaves. As if words are the stick driving it to face us.

Smelling of mud and green apple candy, we lean against each other and try to flesh out need. As if our voices can give shape to something that may have just been a hiccup in the breeze.

I remember when love was a surging state. It had to rise up and flood the senses and then loving acts followed. Much like confidence. Like hope.

This was truth unexamined.

When does the possibility of bidirectional causation emerge? Is it when you grow up?

Or does seeing the relationship turn back on itself finally make you grow up?

Now I understand this: Act as if the capacity exists and you make it appear. You make it appear to be so, yes, and also to take shape, to arrive. Accumulate enough instances of contrived appreciation or optimism or boldness, and you become enamored. Hopeful. Brave.

Maybe like me, you don’t buy any of it. You’re sure you are fooling yourself and it might all come crashing down. Maybe you sort of wish you believed your choices are good ones and could possess the kind of conviction that clarifies each subsequent decision. Maybe you sort of envy the positive thinkers (upbeat or certain or — worse yet — both).

Like me, maybe you suspect the equanimity that must accompany conviction will never balm your fears. Indeed, doubt may itch at you until the day you die.

Face it. You are too far gone for faith. Or maybe too much here. You would never seal those doors lining the corridors of perception. A mind that knows (knows!) it is always missing something only needs a pinhole to chase light to its source. Your curiosity is the thrumming, silver string. It is one note that strikes at your key. You could no more still it than you could give up sight. Or sex. Or speech.

Like me, you want to move towards something. Like you, I want to stop moving and be.

We pause and hold the map between us. We start to draw along the contours. Instantly, the delineation becomes a perimeter. A boundary.

Even just tracing a route with our voices, we hedge.

Precision is folly. Orderly sequence is illusion.

Because the trail we choose forks. It always does. Yellow blazes then green and then maybe none at all. And here is a river, and here is a burl on a dying oak in the shape of a devil with a broken horn. Here is a sound like a creaking open door. Here is the shush, the movement at the edge of sight, the tunnel out from under the bounds (the bonds) we trusted held us to this place, and this place to the earth.

We lean against each other, word as breath drawing need.

Drawing it out. Filling it in.

We decide it is in fact a snake. With nothing more to go on than a single word from me, you step into the now-still leaves. I sense it. You name it. We add it to a collection that includes a single yellow butterfly and five slender minnows darting from their shade.

Today’s choice is the only one.

To you, I hold.

Like you to me.
 

Heaven on Earth

My son asks if god is real. We are brushing our teeth. I tell him some people think so and others don’t.

“But is he?”

I tell him to spit. Then I tell him he’ll have to decide for himself.

He spits. “I believe in god because if you don’t, god will get mad and hurt you.”

Where does he get this stuff? I thought his world was ruled by Minecraft and basketball. Now it’s divine retribution?

“I didn’t know god was that cruel. He hurts people just for not doing what he wants?”

“Yeah. You get in trouble if you don’t believe in him.” Bug takes a big gulp of water then looks up at me watching him in the mirror. His face is grave. “If you don’t believe in god, you should start.”

I rinse the brush and point to the towel. It would be so easy to press the point. I want to ask him if belief is enough. Do we have to let this god know? Should we write him a letter? Put out cookies and milk? Maybe he’s more interested in public displays of devotion and wants to see us serve, profess, prove our zeal. Do we cut open our wrists and make an offering? Give up Pokemon and pizza? I wonder how Bug would take the suggestion that we should shovel out or neighbors’ cars or paint adorations on the roof and the door. Or even go to church.

I’m itching to ask my boy more. Is any action a proxy for belief? If god will hurt us for not having faith, how does he know? It’s possible he has a device he can plunge into our hearts to gauge some absolute quantity that resides there. My concern is that a vindictive deity endowed with omniscience might spend his days peering into the part of us that calculates risks and rewards. It’s highly unlikely that my process of choosing fealty for the simple payoff of his favor would meet his standard of belief.

I keep my mouth shut, though. I don’t want my son thinking too hard about any of this just yet, at least not at my instigation. I try to wrap it up. I tell him we can each believe what we want and there is room in the world for all kinds of stories.

Of course, Bug sees a wrapped package and his first instinct is to tear in.

“Is heaven real?”

I try the same line. Lots of people, lots of ideas. He’s not having it.

“But what do you think?”

And here, I stumble. Sure, harps and angels are ludicrous, but my convictions are comprised of more than the rejection of a single mythology. I must think something of the concept of heaven. It’s hard to grasp. When was the last time I had to shape these ideas into words (or rather, speak my way into the shape of an idea)?

How do I know what I really think unless I can explain it with a degree of coherence to a seven-year-old?

I nudge him towards the bedroom and start teasing a brush through his long snarl of hair. Bug fiddles with the legos on his desk while I unravel the knots.

With no idea what I’m about to say, I open my voice and let something make its way up and out.

You know how when plants and animals die, they decay? Like when we see an old tree that’s fallen down, how it sort of breaks down? Other things grow from it or make a home in it. Its nutrients are food for grass or chipmunks or birds.

When plants and animals die, some of the water that was in them soaks into the ground or evaporates into the sky. It falls again as rain or fills up rivers. Then other plants grow from it and other animals drink it.

The thing that happens to a tree when it falls down is what eventually happens to us. After we grow through our long, whole life, we die. Then we go back into the soil and the water. Other things like dragonflies and apples and lily pads grow from us.

Life just goes on and on.

To me, heaven is this cycle of all things growing from each other. Death makes life. After we are gone, you and I will be alive inside the rain. Inside a cornfield. Inside all the people that come after us.

This is how we live forever.

Bug has been quiet during this. He’s laid the first few ties of his lego railroad track. I move the brush around to the side of his head and try to smooth the hair over his ear. “So, yes, I believe heaven is real. We have a place we live after we die. I also believe we’re already in heaven right now.”

Bug endures one more tug before pushing the hairbrush away and hopping up onto his bed. He gives me a withering glance. “God is going to be so mad at you.”

“Yes,” I shrug. “That is a metaphysical certainty.” I pick up Marley and Me and shove my boy over with my hip. “Maybe you can put in a good word for me.”

“No way,” Bug says. “You’re on your own.”
 

Join

My husband pulled the bobby pins from my hair one by one and placed them on a table in the dark. He ran the brush through with more care than I had taken even as a little girl, even with my china dolls.

Proximity becomes porosity. We were limestone in rain. The monuments to ourselves etched with begets and allegiances weathered to shadow before we could rub the shape into permanence. It was tomorrow and then the next century.

It will be ten years ago we met. Then two griefs and three oceans ago.

Now I lay in wonder in arms I don’t deserve and he traces beauty down into my skin. Into follicle, he hushes a whisper of first light. Even my pores are seen now. Seen and seeing, as if freed from blindfold and handed a mirror in the same staggering moment. “Oh, so this is what I have become.”

He asks questions no one ever should of a girl whose voice was just hatched. Then he marvels at the tears when all we’ve talked of is sweet things. He can’t know how ill prepared I am for this act of dedication.

How lazy these hands.

How hesitant this contained force.

Of course, he does know, and he fixes himself to the spot and draws closer. We quiet ourselves for a moment words cannot reach and listen to the song on shuffle.

“I am going to come up with an adjective,” he says. Then he tucks it away and we let Regina Spektor fill the room and also us with what we can’t yet tap in ourselves. Halfway between hard and soft, her lyric is a silver glint in the dark. An unsheathing ssss of steel pulling free. She holds the blade against our wrists and turns it this way, that, to feel where it curves and where the slanted script at the hilt edge sips in just enough of the offered light to wet channels between lines

and flings away the rest to flash against a corner of the room
the corner we only just noticed
had been wearing a cloak of shadow
over an old table, a handful of hairpins
a corner we never realized reached so far back
beyond walls
that were almost never there
 

Mr. Sandman

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.

–  W. H. Auden

I do the worst harm to the one I love the most. The dreams crafted with crayon and glitter begin to crack. His flavor sours. His voice slips off key. I fidget under my sheets and try to sink back to the breathless place. I lift my eyes to the receding ceiling, carve a hole, and slip out without looking back.
 
Flight and stars. I careen over rooftops. This works until it doesn’t. Gravity always wins.
 
Nearing the middle of life, only now I am waking up?
 
In the half-place where I still squeeze my eyes shut and cling, I feel the grit against my shoulder, against my scuffed shin. I finally achieved flight, and yet I lay there with my wings limp on the earth and think, That’s it? That’s all it is?
 
He will never be better than the man he is right now. I am what I have become. It is this, not the next thing. Not the up there, out there, over there. Not door number two, three, or four.
 
This. Right here.
 
The moon does not bend to us. The night is not a swelling sea. He does not tuck jewels under my ribs. I do not hear the choir sing.
 
Does anyone else here hate the lover for this betrayal?
 
The abuse of disabuse. We are all battered. Notions no one ever named out loud (silver sprites and dappled light) reveal themselves as a worn felt hat. A trick deck. All face cards, an overabundance of Queens of Hearts.
 
Enchantment lingers, the coin tossed 100 times until the bets are off. Until the game is over. Forfeit? No, just bored with it. The aged ones are ready to move on. Their loves are pedestrian arrangements. We believed ourselves so much better. I will never speak so cruelly to my beloved. We will never sit in opposite corners of the house chasing down our solitary pleasures.
 
We believed ourselves truer.
 
At least I did.
 
Do I admit it now?
 
I hid the third dimension. He was satisfied with the point and line and didn’t lift the corner to feel around underneath. I tilted. He failed.
 
The angles were off. The roof gave way.
 
I re-wrote history. I razed the love I must (surely) have once occupied. I used a wrecking ball. Then an x-acto knife.
 
I claimed it was the wind and poor calculation.
 
How could I have possibly believed it would be easier without the lean-to we had erected? What did I think would be here outside our feeble shelter?
 
The fantasy fulfilled? Dreams in flesh at last?
 
Foolish girl. It is just exactly what was there before only without the micrometer of certainty to keep the storms at bay. Only with a lot more toil. Only truth (for what it’s worth).
 

And surely in time we will start to confront the failures of understanding and the disenchantment familiarity brings. In time we will face the knowledge of what we can never, never expect from one another.

– Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses

Waking up is not without pain. Nevertheless, raw skin and all, it beats the alternative.
 

Low Notes

Once, I believed you sang for me
Even though the girl’s brown eyes were not the blue of these.
It was a relief to become an imagined thing,
A lyric, the leaf atop a walnut shell, bobbing along
On the calm and lilting sea,
The lullaby of you giving the faintest luff
To the edges of our rough but sturdy dreams.
When we turned away from that gust
We found so much calm, we could not progress.
Lazy circles. Days into weeks.
You stopped trying to draw a smile upon my cheeks.
Do you remember I had a dimple?
Do I recall the feel of your teeth?
Your tune, so long
Had pulled me back from any distance
Until I slipped to the crack at the bottom
And tried to plug the leak with my own whispers,
Hoarse and off-key.
My sodden wings
Sucked me through and down
I went
Willingly.
Logged with brine, I was not expecting rescue.
Good thing.
Instead, the tentacle grasp, the inky black
Deafness. Down from up, who can tell? That slick and sucking embrace
Cracked scapulae and pressed the feathered limbs back in
And oh, the sting, my torn and voiceless throat,
The sweet surrender of broken things.
How far did I go? Fathoms
Immeasurable, impossible for a human girl
To descend to those low octaves and still draw breath
So I choose to believe
Only this:
I never left the boat
And you were still there on the surface of things
With your song suspended
Over me, awaiting my reach, my choked “Please.”
If I had spoken this aloud, perhaps.
Perhaps.
Assuming our power is greater than that of the ocean,
And that words can turn the winds
And that we are more than just dampened flesh
Salted with such thirst.