Browsing "World Religions"

The 3 Rs: Recommended Religion Reading

This list was so much harder than you’d think. I’ve read literally hundreds of books about religion and history over the past 15-20 years, so narrowing it down to a few essentials left me feeling like I was trying to find the most refreshing thimbleful of water in the river. The one “book” I wasn’t able to find in a linkable form to include is the current US Military Chaplain’s Handbook, but that’s a fascinating read. It appears to be primarily available in CD-ROM form, which makes sense, since it’s really a large collection of field manuals, devotionals, and other resources.

In the meantime, though, here are the best books I could think of for folks who may or may not have had an Intro to World Religions class in college at some point, but are otherwise not too informed about religion, even their own. Please, suggest your own books down in comments! I’ll have a list of movies that demonstrate important religious concepts or new perspectives that break our stereotypes for you next week.

RECOMMENDED READINGS FOR THE RELIGIOUSLY CURIOUS

  1. Prothero, Stephen, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know–And Doesn’t. (HarperOne, 2008) This book makes a powerful case that understanding the major world religions–including the reality of Christianity–is absolutely critical for social progress, international security, and continued democracy. Prothero has a new book, God Is Not One, that I haven’t read yet, but profiles in more depth eight of the world’s major faiths.
  2. Livingston, James, Anatomy of the Sacred, Sixth Edition. (Prentice Hall, 2008) This is the textbook I used for my most recent course on religious theory. It fits pretty well with my approach of looking at different facets of religious behavior and belief, and filling in variations on those themes from a wide variety of historical and contemporary religions. Because it’s a college textbook, it costs a stupid amount of money; on the other hand, used copies abound.
  3. Eastman, Roger, The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions. (OUP, 1999) I don’t use other people’s anthologies of primary sources, for the most part–I pull together a much more diverse selection of my own devising than any I’ve ever found in print, both for religion and history classes. But if I had to pick one for a religious studies class, I’d go with this one every time. It’s by far the most diverse, and the excerpts are nice and long (relatively speaking, to the rest of the field). If you haven’t ever heard the voices of faiths other than yours, I cannot possibly stress how important it is for everyone to read the actual sources themselves.
  4. Meredith, Hickman, Rogers, and Kirkby, The Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions: Internet-Linked. (Usborne, 2010) This is a “kids'” book, but like everything Usborne does, it’s a hell of a lot more informative than anything you’ll encounter in the vast majority of mainstream media. It’s also lavishly illustrated, something that’s really important as you try to wrap your head around new and foreign faiths, and it’s Internet-linked to all sorts of extra articles, pictures, and videos. This may actually be the very best place to start if you’ve never taken a course on world religion. NB: The link is to the book listing on the UK Usborne Publishing page, but Usborne books are available here in the States too, both through home distributors (think Tupperware, but with awesome books instead of burping plastic) and, increasingly, in retail outlets.
  5. Matlins, Stuart, and Arthur Magida, How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, Fifth Edition. (Skylight Paths, 2010) This may be one of the coolest books around. Religion by religion, sect by sect, it gives you the basic etiquette to guarantee you don’t embarrass yourself at religious ceremonies of any stripe. Practically speaking, it’s awesome if you’ve got a diverse group of friends who do things like get married, give birth, or die, but it’s also a fascinating read cover-to-cover, and should be considered for the bookshelf of any graduate or world traveller.
  6. Swami Tapasyananda (trans.), Srimad Bhagavad Gita. (Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003) You may have picked up a free copy of the Gita from a table on your college campus, but this is the edition of the essential (if not only) Hindu holy book recommended by a very smart and learned Krishnavite friend. It’s part scripture, part epic poem, part philosophical treatise, but it sums up with passion and poetry some of the most compelling concepts of Hinduism.
  7. Kornfield, Jack, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Religious Life. (Bantam, 1993) This is a wonderfully simple introduction to Western Buddhism, especially the core concepts of mindfulness, compassion toward all living things, our attachments to the material world, and the practice of meditation. Western Buddhism certainly isn’t the same as all the Asian variants, but this explains those central ideas in a way that sets the reader up well to make more far-reaching inquiries.
  8. Robinson, George, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. (Atria, 2001) I have it on very good authority (from an honest-to-goodness Jewish school teacher!) that this is one of the most popular texts for people new to the Jewish faith; it’s even used as a textbook in conversion classes. I need to pick up a copy myself, come to think of it.
  9. Beard, North, and Price (eds.), Religions of Rome (2 vol.). (Cambridge University Press, 1998) This is a very scholarly two-volume set–the first volume is synthesis and analysis of the religious landscape of the Roman Empire at its height, and the second is full of annotated primary sources (inscriptions, imperial proclamations, legends, and rituals). It’s geared toward the expert reader, but if you want to get a clear view of exactly how much like every other Mediterranean mystery cult Christianity was, and how fundamentally weird that was in the history of human religious practice, there’s no better starting place.
  10. Wansbrough, Henry (ed.), The New Jerusalem Bible (Doubleday, 1999) My Latin and Roman History teacher calls this the “Scholar’s Bible.” The translation is directly from the original Hebrew and Greek by some of the best biblical experts in the world. It’s not the easiest version to read, but it’s probably the closest to the original text as we’re going to get.
  11. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. (HarperOne, 1999) I can’t recommend against any of Crossan’s work, but this one’s particularly good at highlighting the historical truth that Christianity was not founded by Jesus, but about Jesus, by lots of other people. Crossan is one of the leading experts on the historical Jesus, and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the real horse race Christianity was in for its survival, and how unlikely in many ways it was to have been the faith that came out on top.
  12. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels. (Vintage, 1989) The discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the 1940s revolutionized our understanding of Christianity in the decades following the life of Jesus. Most Christians get a very tidy, unified history of the development of the faith’s core principles–even the compilation of the Bible–when the truth is very far from that. We knew other gospels existed, but until the Nag Hammadi texts, we only knew them based on what more orthodox critics said about them. This book tells us about the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, among others, and illuminates the radically different interpretations of Jesus’ life and message among his own followers.
  13. Pagels, Elaine, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (Vintage, 1996) Pagels is another historian whom it’s hard to go wrong with, much like Crossan, when it comes to the history of early Christianity. I also recommend this particular book, though, because it highlights the point at which Christianity was no longer the outcast under attack, but the dominant power that could attack others, even other kinds of Christians whose beliefs weren’t officially endorsed. It also helps us understand the anti-Semitic foundations of Christianity that reverberate into the present day.
  14. Aslan, Reza, No God But God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. (Random House, 2011) The absolute best book on Islam I’ve ever read. You get it all–history, culture, faith, practice, conflict, poetry, mysticism, expansion, controversy. Aslan’s analysis is unflinching. I wish more universities would make this their freshman read as students come into the collegiate world.
  15. Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Ballantine, 1994) Armstrong is one of the world’s most respected experts on world religion, and she makes it incredibly accessible for regular readers. She’s written dozens of books, on many different faiths, but I wish more people read this one so they could see the full extent to which the Abrahamic religions are interdependent and similar. Armstrong is also doing great work with her non-profit foundation Charter for Compassion, which promotes understanding and dialogue among people of all faiths.
  16. Comte-Sponville, Andre, and Nancy Huston, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. (Penguin, 2008) This slim volume is surprisingly full of simple, elegant wisdom. Don’t let the title mislead you, though–this book isn’t out to convert anyone away from believing in gods or religion. Instead, it blends science, philosophy, humanism, and history to prove that there’s immense mystery and majesty in what and where humans are, even before we try to understand the unknowable.

 

May 22, 2012 - World Religions    13 Comments

Living the Questions

One of the hats I wear upon my surprisingly pink head is that of a religious studies scholar. Believe me, I’m as shocked as anyone that I ended up that way, but there you have it. It’s mostly the fault of medieval studies–it’s pretty much impossible to become educated about the Middle Ages (not just in Europe, but in many cultures) without learning about the religions and the institutions they create.

But I started my inquiries about religion much earlier than grad school. When I went through an abusive relationship in high school that ended in sexual assault, I knew from my mother’s and grandmother’s examples that that was when faith was supposed to kick in and help guide me through dark times. But it didn’t, and I didn’t have a good reason why it didn’t, except that I hadn’t accepted my Methodist upbringing as deeply as I’d thought. Sure, I was Bible Trivia CHAMPION, and sang in choirs and ensembles from the time I was five, but when it came to unswerving belief in the tenets of Christianity? I just didn’t have it.

A lot of young people go through a crisis of faith like this at some point, and it’s pretty common for them to swing way out to the most diametrically opposed idea of religion that they can imagine, then gradually work their way back in to something pretty close to where they started. A kid raised Lutheran may flirt with Quakerism or (gasp!) atheism in their teens and 20s, but usually drifts back as they establish a career and family, ending up with, say, United Church of Christ.

Griffin says, "The Doctors are going to church." I guess Time Lords and Silurians are Unitarian Universalists too (note the flaming chalice, our religious symbol, in the center).

Did I do that? Oh, no. That would’ve been too easy. In my weird Asperger’s brain, I decided that I must have missed something in Christianity, so I set about re-reading the Bible, and a bunch of the Church fathers and modern theologians. When that didn’t yield an answer, I thought maybe Protestantism was the problem, so I looked into Catholicism. Nope, not there either. Maybe Jesus was the hitch? Judaism was fascinating, and I loved the ancientness of its traditions, but no, no faith there. I expanded my search gradually outward, into Asian religions and secular philosophy, in an ever-widening circle of texts and ideas. I loved so much of what I found–the beauty, the ritual, the breathtaking elegance and complexity of both physical and spiritual architectures–and I saw the pathways light up with common themes and practices. I found my own truth in a completely unexpected place, and years later, shocked myself right down to my boots by discovering an actual church home in Unitarian Universalism.

That bright skyline of connections stayed with me, though, and when I began my grad work in medieval Celtic history, I was drawn to the messy intersections where politics and faith collided, maneuvered, and eventually negotiated a common space in medieval culture. The space between what the Church was officially teaching and what the Irish people appear to have believed practically leapt off the page, and I started to pick at the stitches of Irish syncretism, or the meeting and merging of the island’s pre-Christian faith with the new Mediterranean import. Without the official government structure of Ancient Rome for support, and eventually to be co-opted by the Church, Ireland was a weird, awesome case study. I eventually found another, similar collision, on the other side of the world in medieval Japan, where Buddhism slid into Shinto like so many tectonic plates.

In my teaching, I returned again and again to the common threads among religions, which seemed so much more important and interesting than the differences. Even when I was teaching Early and Medieval Christianity, I found I couldn’t, in good conscience, teach about events like the Crusades without giving my students the basic grounding in Islam that they weren’t receiving anywhere else, even at a major university like Penn State. I made this a feature of my classes, and the students seemed grateful to be getting that information, especially post-9/11. A few students took exception to my treatment of their scriptures as, first and foremost, historical artifacts, rather than the direct word from on high; others might have been jolted by the way I talked about saints and wise men as both mortals and archetypes, instead of the uncritical figureheads populating their stories of faith. But, year after year, kids and adults alike told me how they’d gone to church their whole lives and never heard voices like the ones I brought into the classroom, or understood what sacred texts meant to be saying, and I’m proud and hopeful that the historical perspective prompted their own inquiries.

In a time when so much of our society and politics are influenced by the often-radical views of loud religious minorities, I think it’s worth shining a little light on the ideas and practices that bind us together. I want to share some of the sources and stories I’ve taught over the years, and I’ll probably end up doing it in roughly the format I designed for the last general religion class I taught: around the common themes of sacredness in terms of space, time, people, deeds, texts, and events. Let me make this clear: I’m not looking to change anybody’s mind, or convert anybody from one thing to another, or even challenge anybody’s faith. I have no agenda beyond asking the questions, and hopefully giving others a glimpse of that intricate web that connects us all. I’ll primarily talk about religion, which is the structure of beliefs and practices, as opposed to faith, which is the intellectual and emotional resonance of the truth humans seek. I’m always open to questions or counterpoints, but I want the dialogue to be open and respectful. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to see the value in each others’ values.

Mar 14, 2012 - Literature, World Religions    2 Comments

Some Facts About Fantasy

Connor, Cam, and I snuck off to see John Carter this weekend. Griffin, refusing to fall in with the family-wide cinephilia, couldn’t care less about the whole theater experience; he downright hates 3D movies–they give him horrible headaches. So we unceremoniously dumped him at a friend’s house, and the three of us reveled in two hours of pulpy fantasy goodness.

Reviewers have widely panned the movie as a “big-budget fiasco” and “the year’s first mega-disaster.” A few, like RopeOfSilicon.com’s Brad Brevet, not only took the movie at its popcorny fun face value, but also put the movie’s influences in the correct order–when the Guardian claimed that director Andrew Stanton must have pitched Disney with “Star Wars meets Avatar,” that reviewer made the same error as someone claiming that The Beatles were just rip-offs of Oasis. Brevet explains, “Throughout the history of cinema several sci-fi films have been inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs created the character of John Carter in 1912 and his stories have influenced a generation of filmmakers including George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. So if you see bits of Star WarsAvatar and Indiana Jones inside John Carter don’t be surprised.” And, as a parent, this film adaptation passes the most important test–it had Connor scouring the shelves of our local Half Price Books so he could read the Barsoom series for himself.

This certainly isn’t the first time in recent years that a book or movie seems to have gotten the short end of the critical stick, just for being science fiction or fantasy. When George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire was adapted as an HBO miniseries last year, NYT critic Ginia Bellafante turned her nose up at “the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth,” and suggested that “normal” women would never choose to read or watch such a series, thus triggering righteous floods of nerdrage.

Bellafante (mostly) got away with these statements because fantasy has been increasingly marginalized in Western culture since the Enlightenment, relegated primarily to juvenile literature. No, obviously I’m not saying that only children read fantasy–duh, I read fantasy, folks. But part of why adults who read fantasy find themselves as the butt of abuse or jokes is because fantasy is something society expects us to outgrow. Think about one of the most common insulting stereotypes levied at sci-fi/fantasy fans: that they never leave home, never grow up, never get out of their parents’ basement.

[WARNING: I’m about to go all pedagogical on you here. I’ll provide links where I can, but it’s not meant to be a research paper.]

The secret about fantasy that most folks don’t know is that it was the most popular form of literature for centuries before the Enlightenment. “How could that be?” you may ask. “Wasn’t the pre-modern period dominated by the Catholic Church?” Yes, but here’s the twist–the Church was the primary purveyor of fantasy literature throughout the Middle Ages. They delivered it in the form of hagiography, or the genre of writing known as Saints’ Lives. Sure, these stories of good and righteous models of Christian values were important teaching tools for Church history and theological principals to a largely illiterate population, but if it had been all morals and no miracles, medieval listeners would’ve zoned out like the rest of us do during lectures.

This mosaic depicts the martyrdom of St Edmund: (top L) surviving total perforation; (top R) Danes searching for the missing head; (bottom L) wolf guarding Ed's head; (bottom R) followers discover a restored and uncorrupted body upon translation of relics

Instead, Church writers folded in fantasy elements that modern readers would easily recognize: superhuman strength and endurance, monstrous beasts, mysterious lands, cosmic convergences, even the walking dead. For instance, Saints Anthony of Padua and Francis Xavier, among many others, were said to have bilocated, or appeared in two places at the same time, and Saint Collette foretold the future. When Saint Edmund was beheaded by the Danes, some versions of his Saint’s Life say that the head rolled away into the underbrush of a nearby forest, and was only found when his devoted subjects followed the howls of a wolf and found the animal calmly guarding the head from other predators. In other versions, it’s Edmund’s own decapitated body that plucks the missing head from its hiding place.

Even in this Christian icon, notice that the bowl of fire is the most prominent of Saint Brigid's symbols.

Woodcut depicting St Brendan and his companions celebrating Easter Mass on the whale's back. Yes, we now know that whales don't look like that.

Irish monks in particular, with their country’s millenia-old tradition of fantastical tales of heroes and holy men, had a knack for writing the most wildly imaginative and popular Saints’ Lives. Saint Brigit’s Life carries over many elements from the stories of the pre-Christian fire goddess of the same name, such as an unextinguishable flame at her abbey in Kildare. In tales of her auspicious youth, it’s said that Brigit’s mother had left her in a cradle at home, while she went out to gather sheep. From a distance, she saw a pillar of fire pluming through the roof of the house; panicked, she ran back, only to find the column of flame originating in baby Brigit’s crib, where the child lay happy and unharmed. Saint Brendan’s Voyages (Navigatio Sancti Brendani) included aspects of all great classical voyage literature, such as the Odyssey and the Aenaid. On his way, he encounters a sea monster, various devils, and magical animals. At one point, far out at sea, he wishes aloud that he and his companions could celebrate Easter Mass on solid land. A whale surfaced near their boat, and allowed Brendan and company to hold their services on its back.

Don’t fall for the old trope about the “Dark Ages” and how ignorant and gullible medieval people were, to believe stories like these. There were active debates about the nature of the allegory playing out in these stories, even as they were recopied and retold all across Europe. Medieval listeners could read the subtext in Saints’ Lives as easily as modern fantasy reader can pick up the underlying references and messages in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Hagiographers (writers of Saints’ Lives) included fantastic miracles, not just for entertainment value, but also to demonstrate an important Christian belief–that, through God, anything is possible.

As science developed and evidence-based explanations replaced the old myths and stories by which we interpreted how the world around us worked, miracles and magic gradually retreated from the realm of plausibility (though, to be completely fair, for the vast majority of the population, science was just as impenetrable a mystery as magic). Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic is a detailed, dense, and deeply researched guide to that transition; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Those who accepted tales of the unnatural in defiance of apparent laws of the universe were thought of as gullible, and it was assumed that only people who had no experience of the world–the uneducated lower classes and children–could appreciate or believe fantasy stories.

The need for escapism, though, never went away, and many of the greatest works of modern fantasy were written in (or in response to) periods of social tension, war, and economic hardship. We don’t believe in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom any more than Tolkien believed in orcs, or medieval readers believed in Brendan’s sea monster. But a good story can make a bad situation better, even if only for the hours you spend in a darkened theater or sunk in a book. It’s no surprise that, following 9/11 and the economic crash, we’re suddenly awash in brilliant, compelling fantasy that both pays homage to and breaks down motifs that spring directly from pre-Christian mythology and medieval hagiography. And if it’s good for nothing more than a popcorn-munching, visually appealing (helloooo, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins) brain break…well, we’re just following in our ancestors’ fantastic footsteps.

 

Feb 3, 2012 - World Religions    4 Comments

The Groundhog Whisperer

Game-Of-Thrones-Groundhog-1328220980

Here is an important but little-known fact about me:

I am the Groundhog Whisperer.

No, really–I am. They come out for me, even here in groundhog-deficient Minnesota. They make themselves known. They sit up on fence posts so I can see them as I drive by. They allow me to witness their majestic gallumphing across verdant swaths of meadow and lawn. They are my totem animal, my heartbeast.

But they’re pests, you protest! They feast on my bulbs all winter, depriving me of the spring bounty I broke my back and dented my knees for in the crisp November soil! They’re just overgrown rats!

Au contraire, mes amis. Clearly, you have not considered the nobility of this wee little beastie.

He is full of dignity, though his chubby little body and stumpy legs do not speak of elegance and wit to the casual observer.

 

He is fierce and brave in his defense of the familial burrow.

He is tender and nurturing toward his young.

And he accurately forecasts weather, which is no mean feat.

Though I lived in Pennsylvania for ten years, I never went to the circus at Punxatawny. If it were just Phil, I’d have been there in a heartbeat.

But Groundhog Day in Punxatawny is all this:

and none of this:

But when I was in Pennsylvania, truly, every day was Groundhog Day, and not in the recursive morally didactic time loop sense (although there were days when that seemed the only logical explanation). Every time I needed to see my funny, furry friends, they were there for me. I saw a groundhog on my way to the hospital before the births of both my sons. I even saw them out of season, when any sane creature should’ve been fast asleep, which cheered me in the cold winter of depression that followed my fibromyalgia diagnosis.

And when I left Pennsylvania, they were angered.

Our friends, the Valentines, had a very nice Volkswagon Passat. It really hadn’t given them a lick of trouble, but shortly after we moved to Wisconsin, the car wouldn’t start. They took it in to the shop, where they discovered a frayed wire at the root of the problem. Wire replaced, they took the car home. A few days later, it happened again. Another frayed wire.

Curious if there were perhaps some mechanical problem involved–perhaps a belt or flywheel rubbing up against the wire–Clark cracked open the box around the engine. Nestled inside was a small family of groundhogs.

Clearly, this was a protest.

The groundhogs’ displeasure was communicated to me. Sacrifices were made, appeasements were offered, and the Great Groundhog Spirit communed with mine. And they visited their displeasure on the Valentine-mobile no more.

The goddess Brigid, in her three aspects

Next to Halloween, Groundhog Day is my favorite day of the year. It helps that it’s also adjacent to a particularly meaningful religious holiday: Imbolc, a fire feast celebrating the first point in the winter when you can appreciably notice the lengthening days. As a fire feast, it was dedicated in the British Isles to Brigid, daughter of the all-father Dagda, patroness of poets, blacksmiths, mothers, cattle, home, and hearth. When Christianity took over both the date and the goddess, it became both the Feast of St. Brigid, and Candlemas, the day on which the Catholic Church blesses all the candles to be used for liturgical purposes for the coming year. It’s a moment of brightness and optimism that buoys the spirit just before that last, long stretch to Spring.

And today was an exceptionally good Groundhog Day for me. I chaperoned a field trip for my fourth-grader’s class to hear the Minnesota Orchestra. I knew we would hear Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which I adore–I’m rather fond of all the Russians, truth be told–but the conductor sprang a little surprise Debussy on us, which put me right over the moon (“The Submerged Cathedral,” if it matters to you). The kids were fantastically well behaved, and we were seated only about five rows from the stage, directly in front of the cellos and basses, which bathed me in glorious bass-clef sounds for over an hour. After I left the school, I went to a fancy-pants girly tea with a good friend I see too seldom, and we talked and talked and practically floated away on pots of tea.

It all felt very fitting. Just like my beloved groundhogs, I too was a dignified, cultured, well informed, free spirited creature today… all stuffed into a rather ungainly, overweight, slightly too hairy package. 

10 Wonderful Things For Which I’m Giving Thanks

I like Thanksgiving fine as a holiday, but I work hard all year long to give my thanks in the moment; saving it up for a day- or month-long burst of gratitude is too hard. But I don’t always tell people who aren’t there each day all the things I’m grateful for, so I suppose if you’re not with me all the time, you might just hear the whinging. So here are ten things I’m grateful for, right now today:

1) I’m grateful it’s going to be in the 50s today, which is warm enough to send the kids outside to play when the Macy’s parade is over, but dinner isn’t ready yet.

2) I’m grateful that the turkey we bought yesterday thawed overnight, and fits in my nice old spackleware roasting pan. I’m also grateful that it didn’t come with giblets inside, because ick.

3) I’m really grateful that my mom came all the way up from Florida to be with us. Money’s too tight (and our car is too small) for us to make it down there comfortably for the holidays, so it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen her, and she’s seen the boys. It’s not easy for her to take off work, or be away from my dad and brother, but here she is, and that’s awesome. My mom and I never went through that awkward phase when I was a teenager and was supposed to hate her and the world, and though motherhood has changed our relationship in ways neither of us could’ve predicted, she’s still one of my best friends.

4) I’m grateful that the new Muppet movie was so completely awesome. I’m a hardcore Muppet fan (the Onion t-shirt that says, “I understand the Muppets on a much deeper level than you do” was practically made for me), and I’ve awaited the movie with a mix of wild anticipation and stomach-clenching dread. Knowing Jason Segel, as much a mega-fan as I am, was helming the project was a comfort, and the movie was everything I hoped it would be. I smiled until my cheeks hurt. I am content.

5) I’m wildly grateful for my job. I work on cool products and projects, with awesome creative bosses who value my contributions, serving customers who really appreciate the efforts I make. And the money doesn’t hurt either.

6) I’m beyond grateful for Jill Gebeke, Kim Hwang, Lori Brown, Kris Christensen, Melanie Hjelm, Nicole Tschohl, Alicia Liddle, and all the fantastic teachers and staff at Chelsea Heights Elementary. From the moment we walked into that school last year, they embraced Connor and Griffin with love, compassion, and understanding. They really want every kid to be happy and fulfilled, and they appreciate our efforts as parents to support their education. We could’ve moved Connor to the gifted magnet school after he blew the top off his aptitude tests last year, but we really couldn’t imagine a better school for our boys.

7) I’m so very grateful for our fantastic church home, White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church. It’s further away than other UU churches in the community, but completely worth the hike to hear our phenomenal minister Victoria Safford, to have our boys in the hands of the wonderful Religious Education coordinator Janet Hanson and her dedicated volunteers, and to sit in the beautiful sanctuary and watch the seasons pass outside the gorgeous wall of windows. It’s a place that feeds our souls in ways we never even knew we needed.

8) I’m crazy-grateful for the outrageously cool friends I have all over the world, and the magic of Facebook and Twitter and email and Skype that make it possible to feel close to them every day. I revel in the successes they enjoy, and marvel that so many diverse, smart, and brilliantly creative people would lavish their time and attention on little me.

9) I’m intensely grateful for the roof over our heads. We live in a safe neighborhood, with neighbors who love our kids and share theirs with us. It takes a village, and we’ve knit a little one among these apartment buildings. Our community looks out for one another, and forms a safety net we haven’t enjoyed almost anywhere we’ve lived since the boys were first born.

10) And finally, today and every minute of every day, I’m grateful for my husband. I’ve already enumerated some of the awesomeness that is our marriage, but I can never say enough how lucky I am to have a partner in all my earthly endeavors.

May your bellies be full, your hearts be light, and gratitude settle into your bones and move you to lift up those thanks to the people who bring love and light into your life.

Nov 20, 2011 - Sex Ed, World Religions    4 Comments

To my friends, who are exactly as they should be

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I don’t want to diminish the grief and anger that is right and righteous at the discrimination, mistreatment, ignorance, imprisonment, torture, and killing of transgender people one bit — we need every single ounce of that outrage to keep fighting for a more just and welcoming world.

But today, I want to count my blessings more than my tears.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have several trans friends. Some are new acquaintances, some I’ve known for almost 20 years. Among them are scholars, writers, counselors, teachers, and public servants. Some are activists; some expend all their available energy to fight the battles in their own lives. I’ve held hands and marched with them. I’ve shared dinners and debates with them. I’ve sat through long nights, separated by miles but joined by phone lines or computer screens, bearing witness to the confusion, pain, and sorrow that comes in crushing waves.

They make me feel so, so lucky. Lucky not to have to fight and explain why I am who I am — lucky that they count me a friend.

I’ve never had a moment of doubt with them. It’s very simple: each one is precisely who they are meant to be. I couldn’t imagine calling them or seeing them as anything but the person they are, because the beacons of their souls shine so clearly and brightly. Refusing to accept something that so obviously is what it is would be absurd. There’s a name for doing that: delusion.

Trans people pay an enormous price when they stop resisting the voices, internal and external, that insist that they be something they’re not. But it hasn’t always been that way. A variety of cultures, across time and distance, haven’t just not repressed or reviled trans people; they valued them as closer to the universal sacred. They walk between worlds, working the shadowy seam of human existence. It’s no great leap to think they have insight or power over other liminalities.

So today, as I light a candle for my friends whom I treasure — some I’ve come so terrifyingly close to losing to the darkness — and for those whose family and friends’ lights were extinguished, I do it with the words of this prayer by Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern from “We Pray: Prayers  To and For the Transgender Community”:

“To all trans and other folk who are hurting and afraid, I wish you peace and happiness. No god worthy of our worship could do anything but love you, and no true church could ever exclude you. I feel very blessed to share this life with you.

The Hindu god Indra is said to have created reality as a great net, with jewels at each intersection of the threads. Every jewel is reflected in every other, and they are all connected by the infinite, intricate web. The jewels are sacred and so is the net that connects them. And so I pray:

Dear God, you are the between-spaces of our lives. Where one hand reaches to touch another, you are there. Where eyes meet across the crowd and confusion and find understanding, you are there. Where the spark leaps from one mind to ignite another, that is you. Wherever we connect, you are the connection.

Each of us is a jewel in Indra’s net, shining like dew in a spider’s web. Praise to you, the web that connects us one to another!

When we are in the in-between, on our way from the intolerable to the unknown–

When we defy the categories that small minds invent and dare to imagine something beyond–

When we seek others who are on a journey, on a threshold, on the margins, any of the shimmering intersections of our lives–

When we listen to the possibilities whispered within and step into mystery, with trust, with fear, with trembling– may we find peace, for we dwell in your sacred place.”

To my brave, beloved friends, you have my love, my gratitude, my admiration. Be good to yourself, for you are nothing but good to me.

Working the Beads

I bought my mala beads almost ten years ago, in a huge bead store in Mountain View, CA. To be perfectly honest, I liked the way they looked in people’s hands. I wanted to try to cultivate that practice, in hopes that they would bring me some of the peace and acceptance I saw reflected in the aspect of those who wore them. I had just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and I was locked in the first of many struggles for respect and funding with my university department. I desperately needed peace and acceptance.

The beads, at least, were only $1.99.

I’ve worn them on and off over the years, but I never really picked up the habit of using them as a spiritual focus. Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a mantra girl (note to self: awesome new superhero name). I can’t settle on just one idea and focus on it for very long — I’m the Queen of Lateral Thinking (2nd note to self: awesome new Nobilis character).

But my stomach had been tying itself in knots for days over the impending Troy Davis execution, and by the time I left work yesterday afternoon, I was well and truly sickened in heart and belly, on top of the upper respiratory thing that already had me at a disadvantage for air and sleep. So, desperately needing peace and acceptance, I fished my mala beads from the depths of my jewelry box with 75 minutes left before the scheduled time of death.

And, while I believe as an article of my faith that the focused will can change the unfolding of the universe, neither my will nor that of the hundreds of thousands watching and waiting last night stopped the killing of Troy Davis. This can’t be a hopeful, new-world story like the Repeal Day one, and in 12 minutes, I’m going to have to wake Connor and tell him that all the hope and doubt and logic and justice didn’t save a man’s life. I’m afraid of what little piece of him will disappear forever with those words.

But I learned something about the practice of the beads as they clicked through my fingers steadily for over five hours last night. I didn’t stick to just one thought that whole time; in fact, it was the evolution of my focus that tells the story of the night better than any news report can.

When I first lit a candle and picked them up, I started whispering, “May you find peace,” and again, in the spirit of total honesty, I probably didn’t just mean Troy Davis. I meant the crowding protesters in Jackson GA and Washington DC and London. I even meant, judgmentally, the parole board that had voted 3-2 the day before to deny clemency, and the GA Supreme Court that had refused a stay of execution. But mostly, I meant my own roiling stomach and twisted heart.

At 15 minutes to 7.00pm Eastern, tears started falling, and I asked Griffin to come sit with me and snuggle. He knows when I need comfort, and he’s more at ease sitting with my grief without trying to fix it than I often am, so he just nestled into my side and started to play with the beads too. He asked what I was saying, and at that point, I realized the words had changed. Now it was simply, “I wish you peace,” and I was trying to speak directly to Troy. Griffin liked those words, and he liked the slide of the beads, so I held the string’s tension and we went back and forth, each saying the tiny prayer for a little while, as we waited for the news to tell us that a man was dead.

But the news didn’t come, and the TV networks faltered — those that were covering it, shamefully few — and so the click of my mouse on Twitter joined the click of the beads in my other hand as I waited for news. And the words changed again as the first messages of the delay came through: “Please stop this.” As it became apparent the US Supreme Court was considering a stay, they changed again: “You can stop this.”

They didn’t. Not couldn’t — didn’t. And the process reversed itself. I wished Troy Davis peace as the tears rolled down, until they announced his death. And I whispered, “May you find peace” as the media witnesses spoke and the analysis began and the verb tenses changed.

But my object had changed. I was wishing peace to the families, to the guards, to the lawyers, to the activists, to the witnesses.

I was wishing peace to those who had waited, those who had held their breath, those who had hoped for the hope and justice that our system almost never delivers.

I was wishing peace to those whose hearts hunger for something so deep and unnameable that they think the death of another human would quench it.

I was wishing peace for those who would sleep and get up and fight on, and those who would not find sleep that night, in the shadow of too much doubt.

Give until you geek

The next installment in my Speak Out with your Geek Out blog posts is going to seem a little weird, and perhaps the premise will seem strange, or even a little self-aggrandizing (there’s a nice geeky term for you; it means that it might seem like I’m congratulating myself for this quality, if you haven’t come across it recently). That’s not at all what I’m going for, and it’s certainly not why I do this. Here goes…

I am a philanthropy geek.

I get ridiculously excited over plans to do good things for other people. I’m wildly enthusiastic about charities, foundations, organizations, grants, volunteers, fundraisers, relief efforts, drives, collections and goodwill offerings. I’ve even been known to put money in the occasional shaken can, so long as it’s being held by someone who doesn’t look completely indifferent and can’t be troubled to stop talking on the phone long enough to thank me for my donation.

I want shoes on every kid, mosquito nets on every bed, full backpacks on every kindergartner, roofs over every family, dignified suits on every interviewee, music in every school, accessible play features in every park, books in every hand, freedom in every heart, bluebirds on every shoulder…

<deep breath>

And I get unbearably, wriggling-in-my-seat excited about new and brilliant ideas for delivering services and solutions in the simplest, most effective, creative, inclusive ways possible. Kiva still gives me chills, every time I log on — pure genius. So are lots of the Gates Foundation initiatives. Nothing But Nets, the brainchild of Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, is the model of catchy simplicity (not to mention the fact that his initial pitch stands as a monument to gorgeous rhetorical writing, which makes it a geeky itch-scratch two-fer for me).

Now, unlike a lot of geeks I know, I’m not out there looking to make converts to my favorite things — proselytizing generally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you’re already curious, and looking for a little guidance, well now, that’s a horse of a different color entirely, and I’ll pour as much info into your brain box as I can. But I don’t want to impose my passions on anyone else, for the most part.

My philanthropy geek is the single and very large exception to this rule. I think philanthropy should be a part of school curriculum — public school, because generosity and compassion are human morals, and need to be reclaimed from religion for the good of society RIGHT NOW — from the first day of kindergarten until the day you move that tassel on your college mortarboard. Every single person needs to learn that the problems of the world are not insurmountable. They can be broken down into manageable parts on realistic timelines; evaluated for creative, efficient, and cost-effective solutions; and projects parceled out to participants of every age and skill level to maximize inclusion, successful accomplishment, and the pride and joy of seeing the positive change you’ve effected in the world.

The cruelest irony of my philanthropy geek is that my family is poor. I’m not looking for sympathy, and I’m not going into specifics, because it’s not a contest. Put it this way: my husband works full-time in the game industry, and between health, parenting, and the economy, I can only work part time. We benefit from the social safety net. We get by. But I am almost never in the position to give much of anything to any of the dozen awesome initiatives I hear about as I indulge my geek every week. If I could do a kickstarter for people to give me money to do awesome philanthropic projects with, I’d be all over that, but I’m guessing that’s against some rule somewhere. So my love goes financially unrequited, and I struggle to balance the urge to give my time and talents generously in compensation, and not knowing when to say “no.”

I stumbled into an outlet, though it’s perhaps the least likely, most absurd one you can imagine for a pink-haired, minority-in-all-but-race geek mom. At my very first PTO meeting ever, which I attended in an effort to learn more about Connor’s new school in our new city last year, they started talking about getting the languishing student council effort going. Student leadership, responsibility, growth, blah blah blah. I tentatively raised my hand, and asked, “What about philanthropy?” 20 pairs of eyes fixed on me with laser intensity. My geek fixation had turned on me. By the end of the meeting, I was the advisor to the new student council. But I had 18 smart, enthusiastic elementary-school kids to organize for my nefarious, do-gooder purposes.

And do good we did. So much so, I got myself volunteered to be PTO president. “Never in my wildest dreams” doesn’t begin to cover it. But the chances for more good are bigger I’ve never been able to envision before. So if I bug you for money for some cause, or to buy overpriced wrapping paper, feel free to say no — I totally understand, because I would have to say no, too. But if you say yes, you’re not just helping a charity. You’re helping me get my geek on.

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