White Feelings

My fellow white siblings, those who are seeking to root out racism, this is for you.

Maybe you’ve been engaged in anti-racist work for a long time. Maybe you have recently begun. No matter where you are in this life-long process, there is significant emotional work for white people to do as anti-racists, particularly at this time in our nation’s life. But as Jennifer Loubriel explains in this article, there are helpful and harmful ways to process our emotions; when we ask Black Americans to reveal our harmful habits or perform our emotional labor or carry our burdens, we perpetuate racial injustice. We need to know when to be silent.

At the same time, the legacy of white supremacy leaves us with little experience of healthy emotional expression. White supremacy, as a constructed system of thinking and behaving, has long privileged the mind over body and feeling and has denigrated outward expressions of emotional overwhelm. Don’t be sissy; hold up; keep a stiff upper lip; stop being hysterical; be rational; calm down–these are the messages we have internalized. I still learn everyday how to acknowledge and lean into my emotions. I haven’t had a lot of examples on how to do so, but I have seen the stunting, life-draining effects of shutting off and shutting down my emotional experience. We are bound to have a lot of feelings about racial injustice, white supremacy, and our own complicity. We need to know when to express our feelings.

And we also need to know how. The article linked above has some good tips on the when. So, my siblings, let’s talk about the supremely important “how.” I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some ideas to get us started.

Regular Emotional Practice

At the beginning of the year, I shared how I had developed a regular practice of expressing anger by setting an intention before I punched my bed pillows back into shape each morning. I’ve been grateful for this habit in our current stretched out season of plenty to be angry about; making a practice of anger means that I am learning how let my emotions move through me, how to let the anger rise and fall, how to trust that it will not consume me. Our culture labels emotions as “positive” and “negative,” but emotions don’t carry moral weight. They are neutral. And after years of suppressing them, it can be helpful to practice feeling them in ways that feel safe. Anger is one of my most difficult emotions, but perhaps yours is something else. What feelings have you been resisting or confused by as you’ve watched the news or learned about racism? Maybe you need to paint your sadness or wail your grief or break things in disappointment. Notice what emotion needs practice, and then discover a healthy, held way to embody it.

Finding Partners

One thing Loubriel suggests is having a cohort of fellow anti-racist white folks to process with on a regular basis. We absolutely must connect across race and ethnicity, but we also need places where we can ask questions or process ideas that could be harmful to folks of color. Groups like this can take a variety of shapes. I know that my housemates, who are white, are loving, supportive, justice-seeking folks learning to interrogate their own privilege, and we can hold each other accountable. There are white folks in my worshiping community and my workplace who also challenge me and strengthen me and seek to live out anti-racist principles. I need the encouragement of all these folks to continue this counter-cultural work and face again and again the racism within myself.

Who are your partners? If you don’t have them, how can you find them? If you haven’t been able to find people nearby (or are simply dealing with the limits of pandemic social distancing), one online place you can check out is the community of folks at Energetic Justice.

Truth Mandala

During a workshop with Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, I encountered a ritual called the truth mandala. Go ahead and click that link–this is a moving practice of communal expression and particularly well-suited to the kinds of groups mentioned above. Engaging this practice with a group of people is not always an option, however, especially in our current pandemic experience. So here is how one might bring the wisdom of the truth mandala to a personal practice.

  • Gather objects that have emotional resonance for you. In the truth mandala as described above, there is a stick for anger, a stone for fear, dry leaves for sorrow, and an unfilled bowl for emptiness. Whatever objects you choose, you should be able to hold and handle them, connecting your body to the experience of your emotion.
  • Create a time and place where you will be uninterrupted. Set out your objects, and set aside all distractions: phone, computer, chores, books, to-do lists.
  • Take several deep breaths. Notice where your body has tension. Notice the quality of your natural breathing. If you’re already feeling somewhat connected to your emotions, simply notice what emotions arise.
  • If you’re feeling stuck in your head or unsure of how to connect to what you’ve been feeling, let your mind wander through the last several days and weeks and all we have witnessed. When have you wanted to look away? What images stick out to you? Where have you felt resistance or defensiveness? Sit with these memories and breathe through them, and welcome in whatever feelings come.
  • Consider which of your chosen objects best represents the emotions you are experiencing. As you engage with the object, try speaking your feelings aloud. Don’t be afraid to voice feelings you feel ashamed of or to express confusion and contradiction. Release the need to judge or edit your emotional expression and simply sit with yourself.
  • Give yourself a little more time than feels comfortable–stretch your limits a bit. When you feel like your expression has come to a close for now, do something that feels cleansing or hospitable to your body: take a bath, take a walk, drink a cup of tea, massage your hands, shake your limbs, dance to music.

Writing Practices

I’m a little biased in favor of journaling as a practice of emotional release, as its something I’ve been doing for about two decades. Because I’m someone who is both an external processor and an introvert, journaling has been an invaluable practice contributing to my overall wellbeing. If you’re looking for specific prompts related to racial justice, this document contains some helpful questions towards the end (as well as a host of other resources).

Some writing practices I’m hoping to engage in the next couple weeks are writing letters: one to my ancestors and one to my descendants (or simply those who come after). In the letter to ancestors, you might consider these questions:

  • What do you wish you could ask your ancestors?
  • What legacies leave you feeling guilt and shame?
  • What do you wish you could tell them about the present?

In a letter to future generations, you might consider:

  • What do you want to confess about your current experience?
  • What legacies do you hope to leave?
  • What kind of world are you working for?

Other practices

  • Find a song that resonates with you–or better yet, a whole album. Dance to the song(s), letting your body’s movements enact what you’re feeling in this current moment.
  • Sing–learn the words of songs that inspire you. For me, that’s songs like MaMuse’s We Shall Be Known, Ella’s Song sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and The Kingdom of God from the Community of Taizé. Learn the lyrics of your own meaningful songs and sing them when you don’t have words of your own.
  • Admit when you’ve made a mistake–confession is healing for the soul and releases us from guilt. Not a single one of us will ever be a perfect anti-racist ally and accomplice. Confess your missteps (aloud is best!), open yourself to grace, and try again.

Anti-racism is a life-long commitment, and reconnecting with our emotions is ever-deepening work. Engaging in both opens us up to justice and joy in ways we could never imagine, and we are liberated to be fueled rather than hindered by all we feel.

 

 

 

He was moving his hands too much

I originally wrote this after the death of Terence Crutcher in 2016. It remains unfortunately relevant.

When they gunned God down on the side of the road,
they said God shouldn’t have moved his hands so much.

When they threw God in a prison cell for failing to signal at a turn,
they said she should have showed a little more respect.

When they shot God playing in a city park,
they said he looked so old, so threatening.

When they heard God lift up her voice to demand justice for her children,
they said she was too loud and shrill.

When they executed God in his own neighborhood,
they said he looked suspicious.

When they asked God who could throw the first stone,
he bent down in the sand to write us something.
We might know what it was if we hadn’t stopped him.
He was moving his hands too much.

How I learned to love reading the Psalms every day

If you do enough reading about Christian spiritual practices, you will inevitably come across writers waxing rapturous about about the daily discipline of reading and praying the Psalms. I’d been skeptical. There were some psalms, it was true, that resonated with me. Psalm 42 has been a favorite for decades. More than once I had turned to the Psalms in times of danger and found comfort there. But it was hard for me to imagine praying these often strange songs day-in and day-out.

I can’t remember what prompted me, but I finally decided to give it a try, reading 5 psalms each day for a month; there are 150 Psalms, so if you read 5 each day, you cycle through them all in a 30-day period. Much to my surprise, I kept to this practice for several months. In doing so, I discovered several aspects of this practice helped me connect best to this ancient prayer book.

First: I read them aloud. The Psalms are songs, written for public worship and expressive reading or singing. Reading a psalm to myself in my head was not easy to focus on, and I would feel my attention slipping, but reading them aloud highlighted the poetry and vibrancy of the language. It forced me to slow down, to contemplate the words, to let them find a place in the world. Sometimes my voice was barely a whisper, but the simple act of breathing the words gave them life.

Second: volume matters. I read 5 psalms every night before I went to bed. I didn’t get to skip any of them (not even the interminably long Psalm 119). Reading a greater number of psalms each day took the pressure off each chapter or verse; I knew that I would be moving through various emotions and experiences in each reading, and it was highly unlikely I would empathize with them all.  So I stopped worrying about their emotional resonance and knew that, at some point, I would come across a phrase that felt like an earnest prayer. The rest didn’t have to be my prayer.

Which leads me to my third lesson: praying from the margins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, when praying the Psalms, we can think of ourselves as joining our prayers to Christ, who prays them, too. I also imagined joining my voice to those who are in distress. When I was in Sierra Leone for several weeks as a teenager, a neighbor began trying to peek into our windows at night, and it was was terrifying. I remember sitting under my mosquito net one night, trying to calm my breathing, reading psalms about deliverance from enemies that I had never really connected to before. Outside this experience, I haven’t felt I needed those enemy psalms. However, when I began my Psalm-reading practice, it was month or so into President Trump’s new administration, and harm against immigrants was ramping up every week. So I imagined frightened families on the border calling out to God for rescue, and I tied my reading to their prayers. So many of these psalms suddenly became relevant, words I knew siblings across the globe were crying out in some way. Praying the Psalms was not about me. It was a way pray with God’s children pushed to the edges of world.

Fourth: repeat the cycle. By starting over again at Psalm 1 when I finished Psalm 150, my prayers took on the shape of a circle rather than a line. My evening prayers were not about reaching a particular destination but about relating to God and to the communion of saints in widely varying circumstances: praise, confusion, assurance, fear, hope. And then coming back to those places again, knowing that each was a part of the human experience. The Psalms and their language became familiar. I would sometimes find myself structuring my spontaneous prayer throughout the day in very psalm-y ways. These songs became a part of me, not simply words I read. Sometimes now I will read through just one psalm before going to bed, and it feels like the entirety of the collection is then invoked in me.

I continue to be surprised by how much this practice has changed my relationship to the Book of Psalms, to scripture in general, and to prayer itself. Perhaps you, too, have felt curious about praying the Psalms – if so, take whatever from these observations feels helpful and discover what your own practice looks like.

 

Instructions for Collecting Sea Glass along Lake Michigan

Yesterday I ventured to my favorite Evanston beach, longing for a sight of the wildflowers I knew would be there. I also walked along the shore and remembered a poem I had written last year about collecting sea glass in this season. Here it is. 

Springtime is sea glass season.
Early spring:
when the ice floes have dissolved again into churning lake,
but new leaves are only a thought curled in a budding branch.
The freshly-freed pebbles cast shadows on the wet and gleaming sand,
and lying between them
are rounded, sanded shards:
creamy white, jade green, coffee brown,
and oh-so-rarely
a weathered but brilliant blue.

The foraging is not hard:
wander along the waves
(it’s best in rubber boots)
until a shining flash or impossible color
catches your eye;
scoop up the object, with as little sand as possible;
rinse if necessary,
and if the surface isn’t still cloudy when wet,
the sea glass is not yep ripe;
the edges should be smoothed,
like the pebbles at your feet.
If the sea glass is ready,
slip it into your pocket
to clink with all the other treasures there.
You’ll know you have enough
when your pockets weigh heavier than your boots.

But if the sea glass is not ready,
if the patina washes off with the sand,
or a lingering sharpness remains,
there is still a job to be done.
Gently bury the shard in the crunchy sand
or toss it with vigor into the waves.
The earth and the water will continue their work,
slowly wearing down the sharp edges
and the shiny surfaces,
the brokenness softening into pieces rounded enough to hold,
until something miraculous remains,
something that another beach-goer,
with pockets weighed down
and boots squelching,
will gather in
and carry home,
or throw back to the water,
to begin again
and again
and again
the journey to ripening.

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Living Holy Saturday

When I was in college – when Facebook profiles still fit on one page and I tended toward a bleaker spirituality – my religious views on Facebook read: “We live in a Holy Saturday.” My point, I think, was to highlight the “already-not-yet” nature of Jesus’ beloved community, the waiting and unsureness we all feel when we are seeking God in the world. Today, it would be more accurate to say I believe we migrate through Holy Saturday, again and again, as part of our wrestling with the Divine. And right now, I think, many of us are camped in Holy Saturday, waiting, alone, not sure how to be hopeful.


I’ve often imagined what it would have felt like to be one of the women who followed Jesus, waiting for a whole sabbath day to anoint his body, sitting observantly still on the outside but tangled with fear and confusion and shock within. I’ve imagined a sort of heavy grayness, even on Holy Saturdays when the sun shines brightly. What would it feel like to believe that God had be executed, tortured, killed? To live without even an echo of resurrection?


When I walked to my congregation’s meeting house yesterday, preparing to set up the Zoom broadcast for our Good Friday service, I felt a profound sense of unreality. I couldn’t make my mind remember that I would be in the sanctuary alone, that my worship collaborators would be visible only through a screen, that every house I passed was filled with people sheltering in place, that New York had started digging mass graves for virus victims. I still felt numb when the service ended. I put away the worship elements in an empty building, and when I got home and climbed into bed, I tried to imagine what Easter could be. I cried. And I waited.


I was hoping, by the time I got to this point in writing this post, that I would have something profound to say. But I don’t. I just have emotions calling out past the numbness for expression. Anger at systems that have not prioritized the vulnerable. Grief for the many little normalcies my life has lost. Sadness for the people dying and mourning alone.  Fear as I wonder what parts of our world will be resilient. There is no other call in this moment but the call to stillness, to sit with the reality of the world as fully as I can. The women who followed Jesus knew that their task with the jars of spices would wait. They all could wait.


Most of the theological explanations for what Jesus did on Saturday have focused on the “harrowing of hell,” a sort of final victory for Christ over the death-dealing powers of Satan. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus “descended into hell” as its only description of what happens on this strange Saturday. No one actually knows what happened. And knowing what happened, I think, is not the point. All we can know – what can give us consolation – is that whatever happened, Jesus was present in this day, in this unreal, isolated, waiting day. And Jesus is here with us still.

Practicing with Pillows

Problem 1: Your overstuffed Euro-sham pillows get slumped out of shape by the end of each night.

Problem 2: You’re an Enneagram One with chronically repressed anger About. Literally. Everything.

Joint solution: A daily ritual of vigorously pounding your pillows back into satisfactorily distributed fluffiness while thinking of something you’re angry about. The other day it was climate change and an estranged relationship. Today my lingering headache took up both pillow’s worth of anger.

Our society labels some emotions as positive and some as negative, and we’re taught to carefully avoid, or at least hide, those less desirable emotions. Women in particular are socialized to refrain from expressing anger lest they be infantilized or demonized by others. This all is complicated by the fact that American culture doesn’t have have healthy outlets or processing mechanisms for anger (or its close cousin grief). Churches and other faith communities are often even more at sea when it comes to challenging emotions and their expressions; anger itself, rather than actions that might come from it, frequently earns the designation of “sin.” 

So, as an American Christian woman, I’m in for a life-long journey of learning to relate healthily and productively to one of our most powerful emotional experiences. Anger, I find, is often behind many of my feelings or reactions; but once I discover it, I’m usually at a loss as to what to do with it.

Perhaps this is your story, too. Or at least part of it.

Enter annoyingly mold-able fluffy pillows.

You likely have heard the recommendation to punch pillows when feeling angry, but I’ve found it strangely helpful to let my anger out in regular, small bursts, no matter how I’m feeling that particular morning. It’s a way of training myself in the feeling, of teaching my mind, heart, and body that experiencing this difficult emotion doesn’t have to overwhelm or consume me. Perhaps, like gratitude, anger needs a regular practice. That way, we know how to move through it when it arises and tap into its power when we face injustice.

So if you ever hear a “thwap, thwap” coming from my bedroom some morning, just know I’m practicing my anger.

We never left.

The robins never left this year.
I’ve heard them twice –
their light and lilting trilling
filling January air
damp with strange warmth.
Do they know something I don’t?
That the ground will never freeze,
and the maple sap will never run,
not this year,
not ever again,
maybe?
The robins always know.

On muggy summer evenings,
my windshield stays clear,
no arrhythmic tapping
of insects who meet their end –
splat –
on the glass.
There aren’t enough bugs left, you see,
to cover so much ground,
to fill the air with humming,
to remind me
as I drive
that I am only one
in a multitudinous world
beyond my comprehension.

The robins sing
and the insects are silent.

How will I know
when to look for trillium
or when to plant my salad greens?
If the robins never leave,
will the frost still creep up my windows
and seal me snugly
into winter’s dreaming time?
If the insects are so diminished
that their evening songs
grow dimmer and dimmer
each year
will I have to explain
to my friend’s little boy
why his napping white-noise track
is called
crickets?

I’m in a new world now,
but like the robins,
I never left the old one.

(image credit)

Inner Cartography for the New Year

How to Make a Map of Your Heart

First things first:
when you set out
to chart the landscape of your being
set aside every other map you’ve held
with longing and frustration.
They will get you nowhere,
which is to say,
your heart is off their edges.

If you can manage it,
don’t worry about the tools you have
or the colors you carry –
you will find what you need.
Leave behind, too, your previous drafts,
as they cannot account
for your seismic activity.

You are always becoming.

Start with slow and simple steps:
take in one square inch at a time.
Or you might begin
with a bird’s-eye view,
construing the contours
with broad, sweeping strokes.
It matters less how you begin
than that you begin at all.

You will get lost.
It is inevitable.
I’m telling you now
so that it will not surprise you.
But of course it will,
and you will wander wild lands
you never imagined you could contain.
You will find your way out,
and whether you plot
a carefully considered cartography
or simply scribble in
“here there be dragons”,
you will,
no doubt,
Come back that way again.

Sometimes you will start over.
Occasionally you’ll have to tear up your attempts.
And every once in a while,
what you thought was a mountain
will turn out to be the foothills
of something entirely new.

Be forewarned:
you will never finish.

But this is not a curse –
it is an invitation
to toss away the inks of certainty
and the gold leaf of perfection,
to sharpen the pencil
that is your attention
and give it to the loving wonder
that compels you to write
one word in the key:
home.

 

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On Psalm 106

On Psalm 106

 

We move in circles,

spiraling around your presence

and our absence,

spinning from faith, to doubt,

to apathy,

and swinging around

to faith again

only through

centrifugal grace.

Fill our empty centers

with stories of your fullness,

until we stop seeking for signs and wonders

and rest in the miracle of movement.

Conversations I had with local flora and fauna on Monday, December 10th

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Walnut tree – are you a walnut? 

My forestry is less refined 

without leaves. 

Your ancient bark is so deeply ridged –

I want to fold myself inside

and learn from you

the slow pace of winter sap rising. 

 

Is there a minute network 

of chattering fungi beneath my feet?

My tree book suggests there is,

but you are a newly reborn forest, 

so recently returned to life from clear cut ground. 

Has your speech returned?

We silenced you because

we didn’t know what we were doing. 

But I am listening now. 

 

I was walking too loudly –

I’m sorry –

cracking ice and branches and frost. 

But now I’m stopped and waiting and still,

and you can come out again, 

chickadees and sparrows 

and whatever bird you are,

nearly infinitesimal,

almost hidden by the branch you land on. 

Hop, scuttle, peck. 

A bright yellow stripe

crowns your tiny head,

and I’m not sure that I have ever seen you before. 

Genus? Species?

For the first time ever,

it occurs to me 

to ask you what you call yourself. 

 

Equine companion,

who rode through here sometime last week,

might you have left your piled gift

somewhere easier to get around?

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O, great mystery!

A canyon of color 

contained in a mushroom. 

You are a bearer of worlds. 

 

The river breathes. 

More slowly than humans,

and even than the green things,

but there is a rhythm,

in and out,

and I can see it in the ice on the flood plains –

in the layered ice rings around your trunks,

and the cracked lines dipping in the sheets of ice above your roots,

proof of water levels moving

up and down,

expanding high,

and compressing low,

like lungs,

water like air,

the earth a body,

where a flood is not a disaster,

but a deep breath in.

 

You really wanted to see that bridge,

my own dear self,

and when one way was blocked

by thunder-cracking ice

with slowly breathing water pulsing beneath it,

you came this way. 

Was it worth it?

On most paths,

the mud is frozen

in space and time

with prints preserved

of human, deer, horse, raccoon,

and maybe occasionally

a dog.

But this path,

this leaf-strewn,

mud-caked, 

water-widened way,

is quickened by the breathing river,

and your feet sink into the loam,

muddy water rising over your grey suede boots. 

Cold feet. Potentially ruined shoes. 

It wasn’t so much that the bridge was worth it,

was it, my own dear self,

but that the setting sunshine,

and the sliding black river,

and the maple leaves still hanging,

were calling for a witness. 

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