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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

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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be ever thankful?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see in those “10 ways to change your life” or “5 practices of happy people” or “17 guaranteed ways to looks as bright and shining as the airbrushed person in this stock photo”articles is to keep a gratitude list.  As I’ve said elsewhere, practicing thankfulness is the first thing my mom always suggests when I find myself in a challenging mental space.

What does it mean to live in gratitude?  Is it simply saying “thank you” when good and/or beautiful things happen or appear?  Is it about being grateful in specifics or in general?  And what are the implications of thanking God for good things?  What about when gifts seem to be withheld, or when bad things come?  Who is responsible?

A couple weeks ago, my sister posted a picture to facebook that showed her plant named Roselyn, a gift from a fellow student.  Her caption read: “I’ve had Roselyn for about a year and half now, and this the first time she’s ever blossomed.  I didn’t know she was supposed to!  For once I think she may not be struggling for her life.”  In the picture, the dark burgundy leafy stalks sheltered a small bloom, pink and tentative and still opening up.  My dad left a comment underneath: “See.  We all bloom eventually.”  My sister had not written the words “thank you” or “gratitude” anywhere in her post, but something of thankfulness was evident in her surprise and delight and in my dad’s choice to see a universal truth speaking through a specific moment.

But what if Roselyn had never bloomed?  Or what if a bud had appeared but never opened?  What if we don’t all bloom eventually?  What if my sister’s plant had died?

dscf4911I am reminded of the kadish prayer, recited at a Jewish funeral, which praises God for the goodness of God and the world God has made.

Perhaps we are called not so much to be grateful for things that seem good and beautiful but for life when it is real and true.  For those times when the blinders of our fear, busyness, self-absorption, pessimism, optimism, dishonest perfectionism, all these fall away for a moment and we are confronted with the rawness of life, in all its terror and miracle.  So we give thanks when we laugh until we can’t breathe, and we give thanks when we shake and heave with sobbing.  We give thanks when a newborn wails its way into being, when a loved one breathes their last, tender words, when we hold a delicate flower and when we ride out a devastating storm.  Our stance of gratitude is based not on how well things are going but on how alive we are in this wild world.  And we give thanks to the One who is the true center of this aliveness.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he told us. Gratitude is the choice to live attentive to God’s aliveness in us.

Born again yogurt

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The new batch with fresh blueberries

It was the smell that did it – the rich, sour, nascent yogurt smell, rising up from the bowl where I stirred the mixture gently.  The scent was surprisingly familiar and held in it all the many times I’d made yogurt in my previous yellow kitchen as well as all the many months it had been since I’d attempted the task.  But it wasn’t a reproachful smell – it might have even been hopeful.

When I first got my yogurt maker, I’d been delighted by the weekly work of turning soy milk into soy yogurt.  It left me feeling very accomplished.  And at that time, I desperately needed something that made me feel accomplished, like I was capable of something productive.  I was deep in the obscuring grey of depression, consumed by both apathy and mind-numbing panic.  Getting out of bed was a daily battle with every protesting molecule in my body, and fearful tears threatened to overwhelm each minute of the day.  I functioned, but only on a minimal level.  Medication eased some of the pain, but I still felt like I was standing on the edge of some endless and terrifying sheer drop.  Making yogurt was grounding and normal and gave me something to eat when my energy was sapped and I couldn’t even contemplate turning on a burner.

Then school began again, with its endless parade of books and papers and projects and meetings, and eventually I gave up yogurt making – I barely had the time and energy to eat anything at all. Every once in a while I’d see my neglected yogurt maker in its kitchen drawer and envision some new, bright day when I would feel well enough to use it again.

In April, the date that marked a year since the recurrence of my depression came and went.  I was still slogging slowly through the disease.  I was still on a yogurt hiatus.

This summer, things began to shift.  The why and how of my recovery from depression, which is still ongoing, is fodder enough for its own slew of posts – a myriad of things worked together to clear the fog.  And every experience entered with interested and strength has been one more mark of returning wholeness.

So this week, knowing I had extra soy milk in the refrigerator, I pulled out my yogurt maker from its new location in my new kitchen.  I opened the box, enjoying the clink of the jars against one another.  I measured out the soy milk and located my kitchen thermometer.  When the milk just started to boil, I poured it in into my great grandmother’s mint green ceramic bowl, and I completed chores as I waited for it to cool down to the proper fermenting temperature.  Then, when it measured just under 110 degrees, I poured the cooled milk into the yogurt starter.  And that’s when the smell began. It pulled me briefly from the present moment and returned me to frightened but determined moments in my old yellow kitchen.  But the present was strong and real, and I sniffed and stirred the mixture with contentment.  The sense of accomplishment that rose up came not simply from a need to prove my worth or my health but mostly from the joy of engaging in small tasks.  Every whiff of the yogurt and ting of glass said to me you made it; you are here.  You came through a hellish year and made it to the other side, made it far enough that now you can make yogurt – because you want to, because you have the energy to, because you can enjoy the smell of fermentation and the experience of feeding yourself.  And you even have the wherewithal to write about it later.

My journey to healing is far from complete, but the simple ritual of yogurt making, at once so familiar and so new, felt like a small practice of resurrection.

 

blessing for the bathroom

I wrote this for a little booklet I put together on the occasion of a friend’s first new house.  The prayer is specific to her own circumstances, but there is always some universality hidden in particularity. 

When you stand in the morning

toothbrush in one hand

mascara brush in the other

staring into the mirror

May you see the image of God staring back.

May you rest confidently

in God’s miraculous creation

of you.

May you fight the pull to be made over

into an incarnation of the world’s expectations.

Instead

May you recognize yourself as a holy incarnation

an embodiment

a gestation

of love.

May you reject narratives of barrenness

for the narrative of the empty and waiting tomb.

May the grief of an empty tomb

and the joy of a risen body

dance in you here

as you embrace the practice of being human.

Let my people go

(In honor of Holy Week’s Table Turning MondayI offer this liturgy of (in)justice.  This was originally a sung and spoken-word piece I did for a class presentation on the theology of anthropology.)  

 

When Israel was in Egypt’s land

Let my people go

Oppressed so hard they could not stand

Let my people go

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the riverside

that runs with the blood of the mined-up earth

shining oil and topsoil run-off

dry-throated children crouch on the shores

with plastic pails they gather in life and death

and we, the blood-letters

don’t have to watch

their illness fester on the banks of the river of life

they ask for no parting of the water—

only a clear cup to drink

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the city of tents

where a young girl kicks at a ball of rags

and tries to bury the sound of gunshots

in the swift, strong movement of muscle

sit with her there

and do not try to explain away

the horror she hides in the catch in her smile

give her that cup of cold, clear water

but don’t expect to be rewarded with the return of innocence

stolen by the greed built into our daily commute

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the prison cell

where a tattooed man holds his head in his hands

and weeps

because he was a prisoner long before he got here

and yesterday during visiting hours

he saw his daughter’s face for the very first time

and he was afraid

afraid of the chains he saw growing around her tiny ankles

chains that snake through the houses of my neighborhood

and end at my doorstep

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the path that leads to the tree of life

fall down on your knees in the dust of the earth

where I buried my hands and wondered

how can such fertile ground

shape such barren people?

Tell me, Moses, how I got here

And tell me, please, where all this is going

Tell me plagues have to do with freedom

Tell me the price of the firstborn was worth it

But most of all, Moses, tell me I am going with you

 

Show me a God who stretches out her mighty arm

and scatters our expectations

a God who holds our hearts and softens them

to each other

to Herself

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Tell me, Moses

what do I do

when I discover that I am not in Egypt

I AM Egypt

 

Let my people go.

This hangs in my kitchen

A blessing for the pantry:

Gather in, Gracious Gardener,

a harvest of abundance.

Here,

let there be freedom from fear,

from want,

from fear of want.

We thank you for the land that makes our sustenance possible.

We thank you for the many, many workers

whose labor fills our shelves.

Feed us with gratitude, God.

In every jar, box, can, bag,

place your stories of providence:

of Elijah and the widow and the jar of oil,

of the boy’s loaves and fish,

of manna raining in the desert,

of Jesus tenderly roasting fish

when his disciples caught nothing.

We your children,

even more precious than sparrows,

place this pantry in your hands.

Teach us to fill it with stories and pathways that please you.